From ‘Fruitvale Station’ to ‘Mudbound,’ Morrison has found her place as one of the most humanistic storytellers in her field.
I’m on the horn with Rachel Morrison and she lays it out to me, the key to her ruthlessly humane and impeccable, aesthetic vision. “My interest was never in still life photography or fashion,” she tells mw, “Photos have the real task of bringing exposure to places that we otherwise don’t have much awareness of.” Morrison’s work, which emerged out of the Hollywood woodwork behind such fine work as Fruitvale Station, Cake and Dope, brings a crisp realistic touch to dark LA dramas. Her piercing eye, ensconced in reflective glass, finds its focus on images that a more angular fashionista would have rearranged or shone under balmy bulbs of fictionally pleasant fluorescent light. “It’s important not to take people out of the world, whether they’re watching the movie or they’re in it,” she tells me.
Her latest two projects, Dee Rees’ Mudbound and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, are both the biggest of her career, two impressive tentpoles for the year ahead, and they serve as a proving ground to present the most refined version of her humanistic storytelling. Mudbound, which stars Carry Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, among others, will be released later this month on Netflix and will likely provide the distribution service with the Oscars nominations that it has been coveting for years. (the company doled out $12.5 million for the film at Sundance, the largest purchase of the season) No woman has ever won or even been nominated for the top cinematography nod in the prize’s 89-year history, so it is equally likely that Morrison’s name will show up among these. She may even win it.
And deservedly so: Mudbound is a visual feast. The painter Laura Owens once remarked that cinematography was one of the few mediums where pure skill level can just take over and really seduce the viewer and, in technical terms, Morrison’s crisp lighting and haunting long shots create a visual tone poem to an America both remembered and not. The movie is an epic of two families, black and white, who live side-by-side in the Jim Crow South of rural Mississippi during the 1940s. Shot in the very real mud of nearby Louisiana, every moment feels beat down by merciless elements both human and natural. The opportunity to work with Rees to recreate the Depression-era South was a dream for Morrison, who had extensively studied WPA-commissioned photojournalism of the Dust Bowl in college. “This wasn’t the Terrence Malick magic hour all-the-time approach,” Morrison told me, contrasting the persistently glowing hue of the Days Of Heaven-director with the gritty and tired faces evoked in the work of Dorothea Lange and Gordon Park. Like them, Morrison is drawn to the way the day-to-day becomes a character in itself, an omnipresent and unyielding force. And how, in the midst of that mire, the photojournalist captures people turning to each other.
The very precise naturalism that Morrison accomplishes in Mudbound, families filmed like miniature armies rallied against the world, feels like a finely refined version of some of her earlier craft, indies that labored to show the intimate when production budgets couldn’t afford much else. I was reminded of her first feature with Coogler, the real-life drama Fruitvale Station, which stared Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, a young man killed by a police officer in 2009. Like Mudbound, Fruitvale Station finds its center in tragedy, narrowly cut climaxes lit like the embers of an exploding furnace. But between those scenes, Morrison discovers something else. Intimate family portraits that defying history with glitter in their eyes. Grant and Sophina (Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend, don’t feel for a moment that they’re walking toward ultimate doom but instead like they’re ordinary people caught in a tragedy’s universal suddenness. “Life is unpredictable and I feel, to some extent, lighting and cinematography should be a reflection of that,” Morrison tells me.
I ask her about the emotional climax of Mudbound, a scene where one of it’s protagonists is kidnapped by a group of Klansman and wakes up surrounded by torches. It’s draped in photojournalistic signifiers, totemic of the history of the past century that Mudbound conjures. “It was very violent scene but with a very warm hue,” Morrison tells me of the shot. “Scenes that are violent tend to be photographed from a very cool perspective, either these dark greens or deep desaturated blues but here, I had a very warm light and a very violent scene. So, I focused on the flicker. It’s erratic and unpredictable.” The torches undulate, the lights flicker and the scene almost feels ripped from a horror movie, the moonlight stark, white and incredibly real.
“I think lighting is a reflection of what is at stake emotionally in a movie,” Morrison tells me. This is no better expressed than in the plight of the Jackson family: forced to sharecrop for a poor white family that has displaced them and then send their eldest to war for a country that barely recognizes them as human. Yet, Rees and Morrison are able to find charged and potent human moments inside despair of our country’s history. Warm baths of glowing light signify that the misery of history is not inescapable but, instead, potent with moments that strive to live outside of it. It’s a history built of mud but it glows like gold.