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.