Inglorious Basterds is all about killing Nazis. Dunkirk questions what it means to be a hero. Many historical war films have been produced and justifiably revered, but none feel quite as relevant as Mudbound. While Netflix’s new film, out November 17, is set in the American South following World War II, it is resolutely universal in its tone and message. By following two families in rural Mississippi, one white and one black,Mudbound uncovers issues of prejudice and racism that unfortunately remain all too current. Co-writers Virgil Williams and Dee Rees (who also directs) force viewers to reflect on not just the effects of war, but how the war within ourselves and between neighbors has plagued and continues to plague society.
For Williams, who started working on the script nearly eight years ago, the tale of veterans Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is so compelling because it looks at multiple perspectives. Like the Hillary Jordan novel it’s adapted from, the film takes on six different perspectives. And as much as Mudbound is a story about acts of violence and its equally painful aftermath, it’s also about the moments of love despite it all. Here, Williams talks about the great task of adapting Jordan’s novel and helps us make sense of why this feat feels so timely.
How did you get involved in this project?
The book found me. That’s what it felt like, even though I was actively looking for novels to adapt into screenplays. Quite honestly it felt like a responsibility. It may sound a little hokey, but it felt like heaven was saying, ‘You have to do this.’ It took about a year–about four drafts–to get it to a place where we were happy with it. Then four years went by and several different people were attached to direct, and then it languished for a while. But then I got it into the hands of [a producer], who got it into the hands of Dee Rees. That’s when things started to really move. We shot this thing last summer in New Orleans.
What is it about the book that you felt would make a good movie?
When I closed that book the first impression I got was ‘Oh my God, this could be To Kill A Mockingbird for this generation.’ It’s told in six different voices, so each chapter belongs to one of those six characters, and I knew that had to translate into the film somehow and that would be the thing that made it different. This is an instant classic that should be required reading in high schools. The other thing that really hit me was that we need this movie. It felt necessary. I’m half black and half Puerto Rican and I grew up in a notoriously bad area of Chicago, so race and identity issues are ingrained in my life. It felt like Mudbound was me. It felt like Mudbound was kind of everybody. The story grabs you by the throat and then it gives you a kiss, like everything is going to be okay. That’s powerful.
It feels very appropriate for the time with what’s going on in the world.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The things happening right now are not new, they are just unmasked. If you were to talk with any minorities, these things are not unfamiliar. They’ve been uncovered. Now, in Charlottesville, the KKK are marching unmasked. It’s a strange twist of fate that Donald Trump happened to get elected. But even when I read it the book was still very applicable. It was still very current. Now the scab has been peeled off, but that wound was always there.
How do you ensure that all six voices in the narrative are balanced equally?
That was the biggest challenge in the adaptation. There’s really no trick. It requires a ever-present vigilance, sort of like tending a garden. It was important for the script to keep moving forward, so it was challenging insofar as transitions. When I was writing it we didn’t know who the director was and I really tried to give whoever that director was going to be some footholds. Any time I was writing in Jamie’s voice it was usual exterior, night, raining and cold. Any time it was Ronsel’s POV it was interior and claustrophobic so you could feel his oppression. With Laura [Carey Mulligan] I tried to write towards the romanticism of it, so I tried write a lot of sunlight and warmth. There were characteristics in the writing to make each section indistinguishable and make you feel how you do in the book.
There are moments in the film that are hard to watch. Why is it important to be challenged by what we see onscreen?
The book was so powerful because it’s so honest and I tried to bring that same level of honesty. Mudbound gives us an honest, honest look at who we were and in doing so it gives us an honest, honest look at who we are. And in doing that it gives us an opportunity to decide who we want to be. You can only do that with unflinching honesty. That’s where this pure America piece comes in. If you don’t show all of it then it doesn’t really work. If you don’t show the hope and the joy along with the tragedy and the trauma it’s imbalanced and it’s not pure. It’s a little bit like air-brushing someone’s scar away in a photograph – that’s not really who they are. Any good piece of art is going to make you think or feel if it’s honest. And we need to take a good, honest look at ourselves and decide who we want to be.