“I didn’t anticipate any of this,” Mudbound‘s Mary J. Blige told Deadline this morning, regarding her pair of Oscar nominations for the Netflix film. “I just knew I was part of a very powerful, important film, and I was happy to be a part of it.”
In Dee Rees’ drama—based on a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan—the famed singer-songwriter plays Florence Jackson, the matriarch of a poor sharecropping family who sees her son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return home after serving in the army during World War II, only to be met with the same racism that he’d known all his life. Of course, her supporting performance wasn’t Blige’s only role to play with Mudbound: she also contributed an original song, “Mighty River,” and for that, she was recognized as well.
While Blige has been acting, in some form, since the early 1990s, it took a fearless leader like Rees to show her the limitlessness of her own potential. “I was happy that Dee took the time to nurture me into Florence the way she did. She created such a safe space for me to let this character live, and this character actually liberated me and broke me out of a lot of things,” the actress said. “I was so vain, and kind of shallow, and I didn’t know that until I had to play Florence. Now, I have something in me that’s really, really powerful, and I’m so grateful for that.”
On Mudbound, Blige confronted not only intense heat and challenging material—with the weight of history on her shoulders—but also a personal phobia dating back to childhood, involving live chickens. “There were shots where I just had to stand out in the rain and pick up that chicken over and over again. It was beautiful,” Blige laughed. “Once I picked it up, that phobia was gone. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m not afraid of anything now.’”
For Blige, if there’s one person who has modeled an inspiring brand of self-confidence, it’s the filmmaker who guided her through her Mudbound journey. From the project, Blige took away “that you must be sure, all the time, of what you want, and what you want to do,” she explained. “Dee doesn’t waver—she knew exactly what she wanted. She’s a very patient, super confident, talented woman.”
With the outpouring of sexual assault and harassment allegations that have toppled more than a few entertainment careers over the last several months, Hollywood has seen a watershed moment that is perhaps best understood by looking at Mudbound, itself. With this film, Rees became the first black woman nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Rachel Morrison became the first female cinematographer to be recognized within the context of the Oscars competition.
“I think that it takes tragedy to make people move and stand up, and right now, in these dark and awful times we’re living in, it’s causing people to stand up, and it’s causing a light to be shined on everything,” Blige remarked. “People are speaking, women are being set free, women are standing up for their rights, and it’s beautiful to see us being looked at as equals.”
“It’s happening,” she continued. “Progress is happening. The process is happening.”
Looking forward, Blige hopes to use her nominations as a platform to continue acting in high-caliber roles, though she has no intention of leaving music behind. “I look at people like Queen Latifah, who’s been one of my biggest inspirations, how she did the move from rapping to singing to acting—and LL Cool J, as well,” the actress said. “I definitely want to do that, but I love music—I’m not ever going to leave that alone because I need to do that. I need to.”