Race a constant theme for Chicago native who co-wrote ‘Mudbound’

SHARE Race a constant theme for Chicago native who co-wrote ‘Mudbound’

Virgil Williams’ screenplay for “Mudbound” is getting raves. | Bill Zwecker/For Sun-Times Media

Ever since “Mudbound” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last winter, the film, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, has been generating a lot of buzz — leading Hollywood insiders to speculate the movie will be very much in the mix as we approach this year’s awards season.

Set in the late 1940s, the movie follows two G.I.s returning to their homes in the South following World War II — both suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell play the veterans in the film, which also stars Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige and Jason Clarke. It will screen at iPic South Barrington and stream on Netflix starting Friday.

For screenwriter and Chicago native Virgil Williams (who shares scriptwriting credit with the film’s director, Dee Rees), it was “unbelievable that the book was available [to be optioned as a film] eight years ago, when I first read it. I was dumbfounded it was still out there. I felt like a kid who finds a $100 bill on a busy street. I couldn’t believe it was just sitting there!”

Back in town recently, Williams explained he had an immediate, deep connection to the material in Jordan’s novel, which provided the longtime TV writer (“24,” “ER,” “Chicago Code,” “Criminal Minds”) the opportunity to move into penning film screenplays as well.

“I’m half black and half Puerto Rican. I grew up here in Chicago, one of the most notoriously segregated cities, so racial identity and race in general has always been a theme in my life,” said Williams, who grew up in Lincoln Park and is a graduate of The Latin School of Chicago.

“I also believe this story is so important for people to see now. No matter your politics, you have to admit we live in a time of unabashed bigotry and misogyny and meanness. I hope the message delivered in this movie will speak to many, many people.”

Race figures prominently in “Mudbound,” in which the battlefield heroics of Mitchell’s character mean nothing to a hometown that treats a black veteran as inferior to anyone white, and the two vets keep their friendship secret because the community would not abide such a breach of segregation.

Williams’ road to writing was a bit circuitous. Cast as one of the orphans in “The Blues Brothers” when he was 8 years old, the budding actor eventually moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California.

“Ironically, I didn’t get into the film school, but I didn’t let that rejection get me down. After all, every day I was at USC, I walked by the Steven Spielberg Building. He didn’t get into the film school there either, but later gave them that building. I’ve always loved that way he, uh, handled that rejection,” Williams said with a chuckle about Spielberg’s clever revenge.

After college, Williams got a job at Orion Pictures, “back when they were making films like ‘Dances With Wolves.’ … One day, just hours after I finished reading the script for ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ I got to go to a screening of the film on the studio lot. That’s when it clicked! I knew then that writing for movies or TV was what I was born to do.”

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