Film Review: “God’s Country” — Who is to Blame?
By Gerald Peary
In our politically correct times, the temptation would be to make a simplistic film in which Sandra, the good Black woman, is beset by bad white people.
God’s Country, directed by Julian Higgins. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Filmmaker Julian Higgins’s first stab at James Lee Burke’s short story, “Winter Light,” was a 2015 short film in which he strived to remain true to the literary source. Seven years later, Higgins has stretched “Winter Light” into an absorbing, disturbing feature, God’s Country, but with major alterations. Working with Shaye Ogbonna, an African-American co-writer, Higgins transforms Burke’s sixtyish white male protagonist into a fortyish African-American woman, and that flips everything. This time, it’s the story of a Black professor moved from New Orleans to teach at a seemingly all-white university, both students and faculty, in Western Montana. It’s winter, the ground is white with snow, and all the non-university persons are Caucasians also. Talk about fish-out-of-water: Thandiwe Newton, superb as Sandra, is the only person of color in the whole movie. I’m sure this is intentional: she has a black dog.
Sandra is both reticent and extremely controlled, and it takes a long time for us to learn why she ultimately left New Orleans behind. It was the racist response there to Hurricane Katrina, with law enforcement uncaring what happened to black people. Her own traumatized mother was among the thousands forced to sleep on the floor of the Superdome. So Montana seemed a faraway escape, such a different world, with Sandra, craving isolation, choosing a home as a sanctuary in a rural valley. But, of course, racism can’t be escaped in America. A Montana hunter sneers at her, “I heard about you,” which can only mean, “I heard there’s a Black person here.” A search for a new faculty person in Sandra’s department ends with three white men as the candidates, even though there had been a pledge to find minority choices. When Sandra complains to her smug department chairman (Kai Lennox), he yells back, “We hired you.”
In our PC times, the temptation would be to make a simplistic film in which Sandra, the good Black woman, is beset by bad white people, and we, showing to ourselves that we’re non-racists, root hard for Sandra to triumph. Couldn’t she leave behind this rotten place, perhaps to ride off into the sunset? Fortunately, God’s Country is a far more subtle and sophisticated work, and, even if we take Sandra’s side, there are questions put to us about her decisions and actions. When two hunters park their red truck on her property, she is brusque and rude to them, demanding that they move their truck elsewhere, fifteen miles to the other side of the mountain. When they bring the truck for a second time, she decides on her own to tow it away. In the woods, Sandra sights deer and looks on them with adoration. She despises these hunters for kllling them. But remember, she’s now living in Montana, where virtually everyone owns guns and rifles, even Democrats, and where hunting is embedded in the culture.
Things escalate in the manner of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, where the city intellectual, Dustin Hoffman, found his manhood through standing up through violence against the local riffraff. Something like that happens in God’s Country — does Sandra find her “womanhood”? — but it’s sad and terrible, missing Peckinpah’s macho exhilaration. There’s no doubt that the white men in the valley become vigilantes charging after Sandra, killing and burning. But I couldn’t help but ask: what if Sandra had simply said “Yes” to the hunters parking on her property? They weren’t blocking her car. It seems that the tragedies of this film could have been averted and, far from PC, our African-American heroine is the one to blame.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.
“is beset by bad white people, and we, showing to ourselves that we’re non-racists, root hard for Sandra to triumph. ”
So, assuming the audience is white?
A good catch, Jon, and I probably did make that assumption unconsciously about Arts Fuse readers. My wrong! My sentence should read properly “and white people. showing to themselves that they are non-racist, root hard for Sandra to triumph.”
“But I couldn’t help but ask: what if Sandra had simply said “Yes” to the hunters parking on her property?…
tragedies of this film could have been averted…our African-American heroine is the one to blame.”
A startling take.
Said ‘Yes’? As if they’d asked?
They never asked. Even after she remonstrated them with this point.
They just parked. On her property. A hundred yards from her house.
Without leaving a note, or introducing themselves even if they assumed acquiescence.
Being partially raised in a bush city where people hunt to augment their winter stores, I guarantee you:
plunking one’s vehicle in a stranger’s yard for the day without warning is considered trespassing, reeks of presumptive assertiveness and would have been addressed by any landowner.
Leaving aside all the other overlapping issues – or even some of her own questionable choices – this was an aggressive move, and the arrogance with which it was casually justified as a matter-of-fact when she objected, seemed largely due to her being a woman, alone.
She owned the property, asked them not to park; they ignored her because they thought they could.
Were the situation reversed, they’d have likey done far worse the second day, standing their ground.
No. They started it. And they escalated it. A long time before she arrived, even.
But that’s the movie.
This review? The whole idea of women being responsible for situations arising because they refuse to ‘just say yes’ to something they don’t want, and are entitled to deny, is a particularly galling one.
I won’t even touch the patronizing tone of ‘our African American heroine’.
Well, you take the position of the protagonist, that this parking of the car, though a hundred yards from her house, is a provocation. I don’t agree. As I say, she talks to them in a very hostile way when she meets them and insists that they drive to the other side of the mountain. I will say it again: if she had met them and said, “OK, you can park here when you hunt,” they presumably would have done just that and no more. That’s what I think. The movie is totally ambiguous about who is right or wrong, allowing the audience to choose. You and I choose to read the scene very differently, which is OK.
The implication that she is responsible for brutish male behaviour is disturbing: had she only been nicer, let them have their way, been allowed to have that which she does not want to yield, then not taken any action when they blatantly disrespect her boundaries.
There is a long history in jurisprudence of men being allowed to treat incursions onto their property as life-and-death threats.
This was her property. Their incursion.
Despite her words actually being fairly neutral, blunt and totally devoid of typical female ingratiation, she has every right to be angry, “hostile” even, without being threatened with violence in return.
And the younger brother represents a very real physical threat of immediate retaliation –
only thwarted by the presence and physical dissuasion of his elder brother –
provoked simply because she stands her ground. With words.
“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
This is laid bare in their first interaction; no ambiguity for anyone with experience of such confrontations, as she has.
I am a single white woman who lives in a rural area full of mainly conservative white men and women. I face similar, if not identical, condescension regarding private property and trespassing and it has NOTHING to do with race. I watched this film seeing the heroine not as a black person but as a human person living in a rural area. I saw her as a human with no color or race. I saw her as a woman struggling to live alone through her loss. Incidentally, I have had white men say EXACTLY the same thing to me…”I heard about you”…regarding their trespassing on my land. Their comment had nothing to do with race and everything to do with the fact that I was a single woman defending my private property. I face the same prejudices from conservative white men that she does. Remember I am a white woman. If I confronted people the way the heroine does in the film I probably would have been shot dead by now. If people chose to live in a rural area they should realize that they need to compromise or things won’t go well. She moved to a place where just about everyone owns guns and hunts. More and more large tracts of rural land in the USA are bought by people with money and they shut out the locals who often depend on hunting in order to survive. Hunting is the way of life in most all rural land areas. She was a college professor. The hunters worked minimum wage jobs. She isolated herself and fostered and nurtured her anger and resentment. She antagonized and taunted the hunters. Swallow your pride. Black pride, white pride…how about HUMAN pride of no color? How about kindness towards each other and respect of other ways of living that are different than your own? So I agree with the author. If only she let them park on that first day. But then we would not have a film that apparently wants to make themes about race and exaggerate every negative stereotype of people who live a rural lifestyle.
Excellent comments.I was anticipating a good movie when I put in on, and was extremely disappointed. In my opinion it was just plain stupid. From the beginning the woman was not adept on how to handle the situation. I live in a rural country area where I was raised. I’d like to think that if I
looked out and saw a truck in my driveway, I would simply wonder why it was there and look to see if anyone needed help, to start with.Of course there’s really no crime to speak of in my small community. She came from New Orleans and she had built up a lifetime of resentments and assumptions, which showed from her first encounter with the “trespassers. ” Of course, a person should always ask if it’s ok to park on someone’s property. But in today’s world, everyone wants it their way and can’t conceive of backing down and maybe seeing the benefits of the bigger picture. She was not nice in any way when she confronted them. And neither were they. And I believe she was much more capable of being the bigger person. But that chip on her shoulder wouldn’t let her. It just got sillier as it went along. She could have built on the conversation with the one brother in the church. Instead she let her angry emotions control her and she provoked many of the events. I wonder how much she set women and her obvious unwillingness to treat others with the respect she wanted- back, as she sat on that porch after murdering the men. The writers had a definite message to push across, and it was a the wrong one.