American Gothic

In Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees conjure a rarely seen portrait of post-World War II America, where hard truths about the country and human nature stand in stark contrast to a great new American mythology.

© 2017 Netflix
A scene from Mudbound.
November 17, 2017 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Virgil Williams
Photo: Mike Marsland/Getty Images Photo: Mike Marsland/Getty Images

Many people say, ‘I’m not racist.’ What they’re really saying is, ‘I don’t hate,’ which might be true, but you might be subconsciously perpetuating or participating in a system that is oppressive.

—Dee Rees

The America depicted in the new Netflix-released film Mudbound is as rustic and rooted in the past century as it is unexpectedly current. Based on Hillary Jordan’s same-titled novel and adapted by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees, the film tracks two families, one white and one black, struggling for survival in the Mississippi Delta close to the end of America’s epoch-making triumph in WWII.

Each family has a son returning from the war. The McAllans are white, transplanted from Memphis to the Delta. The Jacksons are black sharecroppers who have worked Delta soil for generations but whose dreams now outstrip the racist rigidity of the Jim Crow South. It’s a side of this defining era in America—with the country on the verge of unimagined greatness and power—that has been rarely captured in film. Here raw truths about race and family speak more profoundly to who we are than the V Day celebrations and suburban boom that would soon subsume national attention.

But Mudbound is also an intimate tale about individuals and families—the ties that bind and the traditions that oppress. The film’s cast includes Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, and Garrett Hedlund.

Rees and Williams, who originally adapted the novel some eight years ago, spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the themes that drive Mudbound, its long road to production, and what its depiction of the past says about America now.

An interesting theme mentioned in the director’s statement that’s so beautifully shown in the film’s opening muddy, rainy grave scene, is how family can drown you. How much of that was derived directly from Hillary Jordan’s novel, and what does it mean to you thematically?

Dee Rees: Well, for me the idea of family drowning people is not necessarily something that came from the book, but is my kind of own take on Jamie and Ronsel’s homecoming. And it’s a theme that I’m always working on in my material. Like in Pariah, where home is not a safe place, or in Bessie when Bessie goes home, [and] that’s where she gets stabbed, and her sister can’t be happy for her. So that was something I was injecting into it as a layer. So when Jamie and Ronsel come home, they’re both kind of weighed down—they both don’t necessarily fit in this world anymore, but they’re trying to stay in [it] for their families, and their families are ultimately the things that start to weigh them down.

What resonates with you particularly about that concept?

Dee Rees: For me personally [it was] my own coming out experience. My parents had a hard time with it and tried to have interventions. So it’s just something that’s kind of always present in my thoughts and I’m exploring. Hillary wrote so many other themes in the material, so there are so many things to play off of. But for me personally that’s my dark edge, the thing that I’m always interested in investigating.

How about you, Virgil?

Virgil Williams: Like Dee just said there were so many [themes] that run through the piece. Everything is sort of metaphorical mud—family is mud, hate is mud, ignorance is mud. So that falls under the umbrella of what this story is and what it’s trying to say and what it’s trying to affect.

What you just said brings me to the next question—if family can drown you, can country drown you as well?

Virgil Williams: I think certainly. Inevitably, it’s part of that note. We all get stuck in country, we all get stuck in belief systems, we all get stuck in some kind of mud. So I would say absolutely. Especially—I always keep saying about this film—the more things change, the more they stay the same. And right now as we’re examining our own national identity, as the KKK is marching unmasked in the streets, it’s all part of that stew, this sort of pure American stew that makes the story really quite frankly timeless, really timeless.

Dee Rees: The mud, that’s why it’s so great because it can function as many things. Different viewers will interpret it differently. Mud is often a metaphor for race—we created it, it sticks to us, it dries on us, we track it in, we track it out, we can’t get it off of us, we bring it in with us. The characters are literally bringing it in and out of their spaces, all those little things.

A cool thing that stuck me about the mud metaphor is that it’s primal and ancient, but it’s also ubiquitous and timeless.

Virgil Williams: It’s the earth. We’re all earthbound.

This is a post-World War II story, and I read you wanted a Western, pioneer feel. How purposefully are you playing against this concept of American modernity, the quintessential American 1950s suburban dream? This is all taking place at that time, after World War II. What was meaningful to you about that?

Dee Rees: For me it was getting behind the psychology of the greatest generation. This is the period that we romanticize. When Trump says, “Make America Great Again,” this period is the “again” that he’s trying to get back to. Getting behind the mythology of that and understanding the sacrifices that those guys made, all of the things that didn’t happen before the Cleavers, that’s what it was for me.

Virgil Williams: For me it was about Mudbound really giving us a look at who we were, and in doing that it gives us a look at who we are. In doing that, hopefully it helps us figure out who we want to be. That’s how I tapped into that. That spoke to me throughout.

Race is central here. What do you feel is singular about this film’s depiction of American racism? What about racism—what aspect of it or component of it—did you really want it illuminate it?

Dee Rees: I wanted to illuminate racism and explore whiteness as currency. It’s about currency and the idea that you don’t have to hate to be a racist. Each one of the McAllan’s has currency in their whiteness and wield it as such. [They each] spend it differently. Pappy flaunts his, Henry’s not going to call names, but he believes in the system and firmly invests in it, and Laura barters with hers. She knows when she asks Florence to do something it’s not totally an ask, but she’s willing to trade something off. And then Jamie tries to burn his, which is problematic because it endangers Ronsel. So I wanted to explore racism in terms of whiteness being currency and not just a hating, villainous person. The thing to take away is many people say, “I’m not racist.” What they’re really saying is, “I don’t hate,” which might be true, but you might be subconsciously perpetuating or participating in a system that is oppressive or ideas that are limiting.

Virgil Williams: Super well said. I agree with all that. For me it was that I’m half black and half Puerto Rican, and I grew up in the crazy segregated streets of Chicago. So race and identity themes have played in my life throughout—not fitting in anywhere, but fitting in everywhere. So for me, Mudbound was a bunch of facets. Every character in that story occupies a space on the racial spectrum of our society. In that, we can all connect to someone or more than one person on that spectrum. For me, I would not be physically possible if it had not been for the integration of races. It was about, how do all these different people make a whole? And how does that whole function? What is the machinery of that function?

From a logistical standpoint, tell me how did you guys handle the writing here? Were you together in a room breaking out the book from the beginning? Or did you trade off chunks?

Dee Rees: Virgil found the book and did the whole first draft.

Virgil Williams: Yeah, I found the book—well, the book found me eight years ago—and miracle number one—all movies are a series of miracles—they paid me scale to adapt a novel into a screenplay. About a year later we had a presentable draft, and then it did what movie scripts do. Quite frankly, I don’t think the world was ready for the story yet. Four or five years later the script got to Cassian Elwes and [he] got the script to Dee. Dee just took it from there.

Dee, you got this how many years ago?

Dee Rees: In 2015. I read so many scripts, and I swear most of them are bad. Virgil’s script was the first script I read where I went, “Oh my god, this is actually good!” My only mission in rewriting it was to make the Jackson family rounded and make it balanced, and make it about two families, and make sure they both had psychological depth and all that stuff in there. But yeah, Virgil wrote the script, and literally right before we shot, rewrote it, and that was it.

Virgil Williams: It’s such an interesting turn for me because as a television writer the process is way different. There was a fundamental understanding that I knew Dee had to go direct this movie. She had to be the one out there in the mud and the sweat and those mosquitos. So she had to tell it. And I thank god she did because look where we are.

Virgil, from the inception point, what was your biggest challenge with this novel in getting it broken out into a script?

Virgil Williams: The decision of what to keep and what to take out, obviously, but other than that, the biggest thing was the six voices. That is the thing. The book is written so every chapter belongs to one of those six main characters. That fascinated me and made me say, “Wow, this is To Kill a Mocking Bird for this generation,” ‘cuz it has that trigger-feed kind of feel and gives the illusion of being hyper-kinetic and hyper-fast, but it’s really not. It’s really very deliberate and really very paced. It’s almost like Jason of Friday the 13th—he never runs, he always walks, but he always catches up. That was the biggest challenge, maintaining that balance and the rhythm quite frankly for the read. Because to get somebody like Dee to love it, there had to be a rhythm in that read. There had to be a pace in that read. You had to keep people turning the page and leaning forward. And that device, for lack of a better word, helps with that rhythm tremendously. It’s wildly challenging, and once you get used to it—sort of like reading Shakespeare—it helps with the pacing and the bouncing back and forth. It makes it in my opinion really what it is. It makes it stand apart on a story level. There were a bunch of other things that needed to go right, too, but on a story level, that was the thing.

Dee, tell me what you wanted to bring to this script?

Dee Rees: I would say the philosophical depth of the Jackson family. So I wrote things that weren’t in the books, like Ronsel leaving, that scene was not there but was important to establish Ronsel as a son of the community and not of happenstance. The whole goodbye where she turns her back, and Ronsel giving his mom a candy bar, having Florence go to him, having a dinner, and there’s a parcel map on the wall, and Hap is planning for the future. All those small touches, and all of Hap’s sermons. I really focused on the philosophical depth of the Jackson family, so they’re not just fading in the scene. They are as round and robust as Laura and Henry, and we kind of understand the stakes and what it meant to them.

I didn’t want a flat Jackson family that was just serving the McAllan family. That was where my focus was in terms of the smaller tonal things of the world, like bringing from Hillary’s book country violence, that was an important tonal thing. And bringing from Hillary’s book the Attwood family—it was important to have this poor, white family, so that those women kind of triangulate—Vera, Laura and Florence, so we can get the race and class complications, with how Laura is comfortable with neither of those women.

All those things you feel immerse the viewer empathetically in the story on a deeper level?

Dee Rees: Yeah, because all the characters are whole, and they aren’t just stating the obvious, and they each have different philosophies that are completely subjective. It’s not just about the plot. It’s important to have moments that are not just driving [the plot], but immerse you in the world and the tone of it. It just raises the stakes. We feel Ronsel’s absence, and we understand why he comes home, and seeing Hap in the act of building his church. In the book, the church is done. I don’t think the church was a big component, but having Hap have something other than sharecropping was important because it sets up his character as more tragic, so when he when he falls, he was working on his faith.

© 2017 Writers Guild of America West

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