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‘God’s Country’ is ‘the perfect example of critical race theory’, says Thandiwe Newton

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Spoiler warning: The video above includes a panel discussion of the Sundance Film Festival premiere “God’s Country,” which is coming to an end.

In “God’s County,” Thandiwe Newton plays Sandra Guidry, a college professor who finds two hunters who break into her property in a rural corner of the West.

When Sandra firmly but politely asks the men, who are white, to stop coming in, they respond with hostility. Over the next week, his attempts to resolve the situation peacefully, including seeking help from a hapless police officer, go nowhere and tensions escalate dramatically.

Premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival, “God’s Country” marks the feature debut from writer-director Julian Higgins. A psychologically charged neo-Western, it upends genre conventions by placing the viewer squarely in the shoes of a black female protagonist trying to defend her property against people who view her as an outsider.

The film is based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke, which Higgins previously adapted into a short film of the same name. In this story, the frustrated landowner is an aging white man.

After the 2016 election, Higgins and fellow screenwriter Shaye Ogbonna began talking about how to combine their art and activism and use their work “as a way to process how we felt” about the country, a said Higgins in a virtual LA Times Talks @ Sundance. panel sponsored by Chase Sapphire.

They decided to collaborate on a feature film version of “Winter Light” that would offer a radical new take on the source material: instead of focusing on a white male protagonist in his 60s, they explore what would happen if a black woman in quarantine found herself in the same situation.

“The fact that she is who she is, saying the exact same things that a white man in the story is saying, changes everything about the subtext of the story. And that changes what we can engage with, as artists. And that’s what we wanted to do: we wanted to sink our teeth into the dynamic that we felt in this country. And that’s how we decided to do it,” Higgins said, who was joined by Ogbonna, star Thandiwe Newston and producer Miranda Bailey for The Times panel.

In this way, “God’s Country” becomes a timely parable about race, gender, and American identity, without making any explicit reference to our current political situation. (Even the setting is never specified, although the film was made in Montana.)

Newton said the film, by changing the identity of the story’s protagonist, offered “the perfect example of critical race theory. What Julian has just described is a critical race theory: you are reinventing the past. You are looking through a different lens, a lens that allows us to be informed about the black experience.

Higgins and Ogbonna “specifically put a critical race theory lens on this story, and look at what the results are,” she said. “It’s fascinating, it’s disturbing, it’s provocative. And I think, a really authentic experience.”

Newton offered additional thoughts on critical race theory, the academic framework that has become a right-wing political bogeyman over the past year. “People who want to get rid of critical race theory really don’t, in fact, know what they’re talking about,” she said, arguing that the CRT only “highlights what’s missing.” Of the history”. Which, if you’re talking about a whole group of people who have been responsible for the wealth of the United States, that’s a big miss, isn’t it? »

Production on “God’s Country” was put on hold in March 2020 due to the COVD-19 pandemic, and resumed almost exactly a year later. This period also saw racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the insurrection on Capitol Hill – events that drove the film’s themes home and made its violent climax eerily familiar.

“As a black man, not everything I see is new to me. I’ve seen it before. It’s just on a grander scale,” Ogbonna said. so relevant, because a lot of it was worked into the story from my own personal experiences.”

“When these things were happening [in the news]”, added Higgins, “it was not so surprising that some kind of assertion that we were talking about something that was real. “

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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