(Photo: Natalia Winkelman)

Mudbound burst onto the film scene during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to near universal acclaim for its nuanced depiction of race relations and familial bonds in post-World War II Mississippi. Its Sundance premiere fell on January 21, the day after President Trump’s inauguration. The timeliness was difficult to ignore.

Brooklyn-bred director Dee Rees touched on the disturbing resonance of the film’s themes during a New York Film Festival press conference on Thursday. “I hope that people take away the fact that we can’t begin to tackle our collective history until we interrogate our own personal histories,” she said. “It’s not just about race––it’s about what ideas we’ve inherited, what attitudes we’ve inherited, and what we’re unconsciously passing on.”

The idea of inheritance is central to Mudbound, which hinges on the dynamics of two families––one black, one white––living on a farm in the American south. The film achieves a rare intimacy with each character in its starry ensemble cast, delving into the psyche and sensibility of each through private moments and voiceover of inner thoughts. Rees deftly delineates parallels between various members of the families, including the two solicitous mothers (played by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige) and the two shellshocked sons coming home from war abroad (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund).

“This could’ve been a movie just about two soldiers returning from war, or this could’ve been a movie just about this family trying to better themselves,” Rees said. Instead, “the multiplicity of voices and different points of view” was what drew her to the labyrinthine epic. By according each character his or her own voice and story, the film operates as an enormous empathy machine, compelling the audience to penetrate the minds and moods of an array of diversely flawed characters. The technique feels especially powerful when set against a period of palpable racial animosity.

There is also a notably classical style to the filmmaking, engendered by gorgeous imagery and an epic narrative breadth. The bleak, muddy landscape becomes a motif that unites the characters in a common feeling of futility and isolation. When asked if she would categorize the film in a tradition of melodrama, Rees responded: “I just saw it as good American cinema. I wanted this to be an old-fashioned film. I wanted this to be a film like they don’t make anymore.” Addressing the film’s 134-minute runtime, Rees added, “I wanted to break out of the 90 minute artificial construct and just really let the voices ring out, let the story live.”

Rees’s debut film Pariah, which premiered to acclaim and a Cinematography award at Sundance in 2011, is an autobiographical rendering of Rees’s own experience growing up as a gay black teen in Brooklyn. Though Mudbound unfolds 70 years earlier and on a much larger scale than Pariah, both films demonstrate a profound perspicacity in dealing with splintering relationships and personal struggle.

Taking the empathy of Mudbound as a guide, the best way to move forward, Rees says, is by examining and confronting our own personal histories. “Each of our lives is a single thread, and we’re all weaving the same thing,” Rees said, speaking to the tattered racial tapestry that Mudbound illuminates. “We’re all connected to what happened before. We’re not separate from our past. We’re all actors in the present––we are not passively watching it. We’re all actors in what we’re creating.”