How Virgil Williams and Dee Rees made a novel into their own Oscar-worthy meditation on race in America.
Netflix posters are pretty terrible. This is probably a rule borne by necessity: why blow money on graphic design on an a-test of a thumbnail? Jumbled, sophomoric photoshop will do. This conundrum confronted me as I picked up a tie-in edition of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, a novel originally published almost ten years ago and given new life by Dee Rees film adaptation of the same name, released on Netflix in late November. It’s a strange, wiry novel that shifts back and forth between two families: one poor tenant farmers (the Jacksons) and one poor landlords (the McAllans). Abundant with as much pseudo-Faulkner haminess as well-wrought and occasionally written observations (Pappy, the racist villain, played in film by Jonathan Banks, is described as having teeth “long and yellow as corn,” which is precisely the succinct amount of evil that Jordan is aiming for) it also gamely plays the field of that strange American tradition of novels by white women keenly interested in what people of color are up to, a genre that stretches the gamut from maligned ‘social protest fiction’ (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Southern Goth lit fare (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) to the high school syllabus (To Kill A Mockingbird). Considering that the latter two examples have made their names into Oscar-fare, it was unsurprising similar things have been remarked about Jordan’s novel, even before it was on the Sundance calendar. “She tackles,” a writer for the Albany Times Union named Tresca Weinstein blurbed on inside of Jordan’s novel, ”some of this country’s most enduring and well-trodden emotional and historical territory, the stuff Oscars thrive on.”
The Oscar-able movie that Rees created feels much like those words and it is richly populated with likewise symbols of American mythology, from WWII bomber planes to the white cloak hidden in the bottom of the drawer (a scene in the novel where one of the soldiers busies himself liberating Dachau is, thankfully, excised). But Rees’ movie also feels unavoidably resonant to a discourse fixated on popular entertainment as an avenue for political representation. Much of this, I learned had originated in the work of a TV writer named Virgil Williams (currently on deck at CBS’ Criminal Minds monolith) who decided he wanted to adapt a novel eight years ago. Along with Rees, who shares co-writing credit with Williams, they embellished the half of the novel that Jordan had left broadly sketched and limpid, the one about the family of black tenant farmers whose eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), returns from fighting in one of Patton’s tanks to second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow south. The details of that story especially appealed to Williams: “My grandfather fought in WWII and he fought in a black unit.” Where Jordan’s novel ends with Ronsel ambiguously leaving the South for futures unknown, Williams wanted him to have a resolution. “For Ronsel to truly occupy the space of a hero, he needed to go get his son.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So, how did you find Mudbound?
That book found me eight years ago. I had switched agencies and when I had switched agencies, I told my new agent that I wanted to adapt novels, so they sent me a stack of books, probably about two and half feet tall. Mudbound was the first one.
The reps warned me that period pieces don’t sell, but that was before movies like 12 Years a Slave had changed the landscape for stories in that neighborhood. So, it sorta did what feature scripts do in this town. It languished for a while. George Tillman Jr. was attached to direct it for a time. And then, about four years ago, Dee [Rees] fell in love with it.
How did she change the script?
She mostly made changes to the Jackson family. She really wanted to blow them out and give them a certain purchase of agency. That was the thrust of her focus. And she also had an astounding amount of personal history to add, I know her grandfather has this life journal, with writing and drawings and such. And she was really able to take a lot of that personal history and give the movie some real texture and breathe it into life.
Structurally, it was all already there. The ending, of course, was different in the movie than the book and that was a contribution that I made that and that I’m most proud of.
Tell me about your decision to change that. It really changes the tone of the movie.
What’s just more important in a movie than a novel is to leave people in a state of feeling; for me, a film is really made in the language of emotion. And in that book, Hillary [Jordan], she was upset when I told her I was going to change her ending, just alludes to the possibility of what Ronsel could potentially be and where he could potentially go. And I didn’t think that was a satisfying enough ending.
And part of that is that I’m a minority, and, quite frankly, there are too many fatherless black children in the world. For Russel to truly occupy the space of a hero, he needed to go get his son. It is the very reason he got his tongue cut out and if he didn’t fulfill that relationship, it would have felt very non-cinematic and, quite frankly, not satisfying at all. And, after all that pure truth in the movie, after all that searing idea of America, you really need to end on a hopeful note. Mudbound, I hope, shows us who we were and, in doing that, it shows us who we are and on that hopeful note will inform who we choose to be.
You also felt a personal connection to Ronsel.
I did. My grandfather fought in WWII and he fought in a black unit, the 92nd Infantry, the Buffalo Soldiers, he fought in Italy. His brother, however, fought in a white unit because he could pass, so when my grandfather would tell me this story, late in his life, he told me that didn’t ‘play negro’ out of some idea of racial pride, he played negro because he thought they wouldn’t send black boys to combat…and he was totally wrong about that. So, I actually connected to both of the soldiers [in Mudbound] on a very personal level because I’m mixed race, so I feel like a physical manifestation of the integration of races, it was a very big part of what drew me into the story.
I’ve heard you say that you feel like ‘Mudbound’ is particularly pertinent to our cultural moment.
The way the story is told felt pertinent for this generation, especially it’s rotating point of view and how that translates into the film. It’s almost like how we’re constantly hearing different points of view all the time on social media and it gives us the illusion of being kinetic and the illusion of being fast but underneath all that, the story marches on. And that’s the thing that runs through Mudbound, the more thing things change the more things stay the same. I mean, as a minority, the present climate of today is no surprise. As a minority, you’re more privy to these things than if you’re not. It’s just that now, the politics as much is more conducive to, say, the Ku Klux Klan walking around unmasked. So, Mudbound just felt necessary in that regard.
It also struck me because there hasn’t been a To Kill a Mockingbird for this generation. And that was one of the things that, as a young adult, you could read and it could give you context for your recent history.
I’m half black and half Puerto-Rican and for the better part of my career I have had to…when you’re a minority, you have to assimilate. When you’re Caucasian, it’s not on you. For the better part of my career, I’ve been writing white voices. So, for a white person to write a black voice, that’s just a different direction on the same street. And I believe that its possible and I don’t think it should be frowned upon, as long as it feels honest. And as long as it comes from a real place and I really believe that Hilary nailed a lot of those voices, I’m going to be honest with you. For me, it was less about, having ownership of words because of the color of my skin but having ownership of those words because I’m an American and this really is an American story. It’s not a white story, it’s not a black story, it’s a story about how those two races hate and love and need each other.