Expectations are very high for filmmaker Dee Rees. The Tennessee-born writer-director’s 2011 debut “Pariah” and 2015 HBO drama “Bessie” were both critically acclaimed, award-winning films, and her newest feature, “Mudbound,” is one of the the most anticipated movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Set in the post-World War II rural Mississippi, the film tells the story of two families pitted against the social hierarchy of 1940’s American south. When Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) return from war to life on a farm, their unique friendship challenges the already strained relationship between the two families. “Mudbound” is based on author Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel of the same name, and features an ensemble cast that includes Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, and Mary J. Blige.
Rees was not familiar with the book when producer Cassian Elwes brought her the adapted script by Virgil Williams, but after reading both the screenplay and the novel, she immediately connected with the material.
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“I really responded to the story of the two young men and this idea of going outside the bubble,” Rees told IndieWire in a recent interview. “They’ve been overseas and have seen another part of the world — the worst part of humanity — and when they come back they realize they’re still in enemy territory in a certain way. They’re trying to reconcile what they’ve done overseas versus what they’re called upon to do back in Mississippi.” Rees was also drawn to the character of the white sharecropper Vera, played by Lucy Faust. “We haven’t seen white sharecroppers on screen so much, so I liked the idea of juxtaposing race and class together,” she said.
For Williams, Rees’ handling of stories that revolve around women and race made her an ideal director for “Mudbound.” “Pariah” focuses on a teenager girl in Brooklyn searching for sexual expression, while “Bessie” tells the story of legendary blues performer Bessie Smith.
“When I heard it was Dee Rees, I looked to the heavens and said ‘thank you,'” Williams told IndieWire in a recent interview. “She’s perfect given her sensibilities, the trueness that was in ‘Pariah’ and the historical authenticity that she captured in ‘Bessie.'” Williams added that he has high expectations for the film, “especially now during this political climate that we have — this sort of second civil rights movement that we’re in.”
Rees shares a writing credit with Williams on the project, having further developed his screenplay before directing the film. “Mudbound” marks the first feature film credit for Williams, who has worked as a writer and co-executive producer for TV shows including CBS’ “Criminal Minds.”
“Mudbound” producer Christoper Lemole told IndieWire that it was important to Elwes that the project be directed by a woman. “Cassian is a very big proponent of female directors in Hollywood,” he said, adding that “Mudbound’s” character of Laura, played by Carey Mulligan, is the emotional lynchpin of the story. “You need that female perspective to be seen through the eyes of a women, because she’s the cornerstone of the story.”
While Rees’s success in an industry lacking in female and African-American storytellers may be encouraging to some, she told IndieWire she’s not bullish on the future of underrepresented voices in filmmaking.
“I’m not optimistic, but I think everyone is continuing to create and keep working,” she said, citing the success of TV shows like “Atlanta” and films like “Hidden Figures.” “It starts to break down the myth of Latino and black films not selling overseas. I’m interested to hear what white filmmakers and studio heads have to say about that, and not only black people.”
Though Rees said international sales agents commonly point to African-American stories struggling to find audiences outside of the U.S., she didn’t find that to be true with “Pariah.”
“People wanted to play the film in Poland and at various festivals [around the world,]” she said. “It will be up to producers to challenge foreign sales agents to get real data and not anecdotal, generally accepted ideas.”
“Mudbound” premiered in Premieres at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.