“To the chagrin of my agent, usually I hate everything I read,” Dee Rees told the audience at Deadline’s The Contenders event, which might explain why the director has maintained a relatively low profile since her 2011 Sundance hit Pariah. All that changed when indie producer Cassian Elwes sent her a script by Virgil Williams. Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, Mudbound tells the story of two families, one black and one white, struggling to get by in rural, post-war America.

Carey Mulligan Mary J Blige Dee Rees Garrett Hedlund
REX/Shutterstock

“I loved this script,” said Rees, “and that’s what prompted me to go back and read Hillary’s book, to see what else I could mine from there. And so when I took this film on, I really wanted to rewrite the story and make it a story about two families, [because] the thing I was attracted to was this dark, symbiotic relationship between these two families who are tethered to each other and to the land.”

In a fast-moving year, the Netflix-distributed Mudbound has lost none of its traction since its Sundance debut in January, recognized with the Spirit Awards’ Robert Altman Award this year for its ensemble cast and making many critics’ year-end best lists. Why has it held up so well?

Suggested Rees to the DGA Theater crowd of Academy and guild voters: “I just think it exposes race as an economic construct and exposes the fact that we’re all interconnected, not just to each other but to our history. Like, there is no ‘then,’ there is no ‘will be,’ there is only now. And I think that everything is now. We can’t dismiss our histories and say, ‘Oh, so and so is a product of their times…’ We are the times, and we decide what kind of nation we’re going to be, and I think a place to start is interrogating our own personal history, and this film inspired me to do that.”

Check out our conversation above with Rees and the film’s cast including Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund.