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Dee Rees on bringing ‘Mudbound’ to life & confronting America’s gruesome history (EXCLUSIVE)

October 31, 2017
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Photograph by Patrick James Miller

There are films, and then there are masterpieces. Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a masterpiece. It’s difficult to translate words onto film — giving the characters and storylines vibrancy and richness especially when another person birthed those words. And yet, Rees was able to electrify Hillary Jordan’s debut novel into a sweeping cinematic epic. At a time when the country is suffocating under the vilest remnants of our history, Rees has used film to drag our past into the present — laying it at our feet.

Considering her debut indie film Pariah and her stellar HBO biopic Bessie, Rees didn’t expect to take on Mudbound. “It’s funny, I wasn’t aware of the book,” she explained to me as we sat in a hotel suite one fall afternoon overlooking New York City’s Columbus Circle. “I read through the script first and thought okay there’s a lot there and that prompted me to go back to the book and see what else I could bring forward. I ended up writing a lot more original material because it needed to be a story of two families — not just the Jackson family in service of the McAllans. I wanted to really contextualize our history, and how it’s not this separated thing, it’s not this disjointed thing. It’s all interwoven. I wanted to try and work on this film on a thematic level and conceptual level. It’s not just about racism; it’s not just Black and white, it’s about who we are as people and the stories we tell about ourselves versus what our story actually is and how those things connect.”

Set in Mississippi during the 1940’s Mudbound centers around the McAllans — a white family who buy a farm and the Jacksons—a Black family who have been sharecroppers on the land for generations. For Rees, the beauty of this story was found in witnessing the families bang and clash against one another on this muddy cotton farm in the Jim Crow South. “I wanted to have this dark symbiosis of two families who are kind of tied to each other,” Rees explained. “With the two patriarchs Hap (Rob Morgan) and Henry (Jason Clarke), I’m dealing with this idea of disinheritance. Hap literally has bones in this land. He has blood. He has his ancestors there. But he can’t take title to it. Whereas Henry buys into the land, but ironically feels like he’s been disinherited. Pappy (Jonathan Banks) sold his land, so he is clinging on to this thing that he feels is rightfully his.”

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