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Dee Rees Brings ‘Mudbound’ and Thoughts Beyond Race to Sundance

PARK CITY — It’s hard to imagine a time when the issues of race and class have been more ripe in America and, not surprisingly, a film that delves deeply into both subjects has attracted considerable preliminary interest from buyers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Mudbound,” premiering Saturday night, follows one black and one white family, living off the land of the Mississippi Delta. Both are bound by farming and the “mud” of their lives, though they both have markedly different takes on their lots in life, given the social strictures of the Jim Crow South.

Director Dee Rees said in interview with Variety this week that she was drawn to the project – based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan—because of “the multiple points of view that these two families represent and this tortured symbiotic relationship they have.”

The title has become one of the most buzzed about in the first days at the festival. Rees, who came to Sundance six years ago with her first feature, “Pariah,”  acknowledges a much different feeling and pressure that comes with bringing forward a film with a topical theme and a name cast – including Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan and Garrett Hedlund.

“Six years ago, no one was looking for us. No one knew we were coming,” said Rees. “‘Mudbound’ is kind of a watched entry that people are looking for… I am excited to have people seeing it for the first time.”

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Rees does not welcome comparisons to another recent film involving race and the post-World War II America, Denzel Washington’s cinematic take on August Wilson’s “Fences.” “You could just as easily compare it to ‘A River Runs Through It,'” said Rees, arguing the film should stand on its own merits.

She thinks the power of “Mudbound” comes from the multiple perspectives: a white farmer (played by Clarke) values tradition and his family’s ownership of the land, while a black farmer (Morgan) must cope with the fact that his family has tilled the same soil for even longer, but only as slaves or tenants, with no ownership rights.

With the families’ two sons (Hedlund and Jason Mitchell) just back from World War II, there is additional confluence and conflict between the two families. Ultimately, as much as the two are divided, they are connected by the land. “It’s everywhere, it’s on the floor, it’s on their bed and on the table,” said Rees. “It’s like a metaphor for something that is not going away.”

Ultimately, it’s an American story and a human story, Rees said. She wants it to be viewed that way, just as she wants to be seen as a filmmaker first, not defined as an African-American director.

“I honestly feel like more white filmmakers should be asked this,” Rees said. “It’s perpetually asked of black filmmakers and of black women filmmakers. This perpetual question needs to be directed at the studio heads and white filmmakers.” That, she suggested, would signal be real progress.

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