Thandiwe Newton, ‘God’s Country’ Writers Talk Westerns With Black Lead

The team behind “God’s Country,” a neo-Western thriller set to premiere Sunday at the Virtual Sundance Film Festival, highlighted how the reimagining of the film’s protagonist revolutionized a decades-old tale.

“God’s Country” is based on “Winter Light”, a short story by James Lee Burke. Set in the frozen wilderness of Montana, the film follows a college professor who confronts two intruding hunters. In Burke’s original story, the main character is a white man – but the writers of ‘God’s Country’ chose to change the professor to a black woman named Sandra Guidry (Thandiwe Newton) in the film.

The choice “changes the movie just because of who is now at the center of it [and] the way people react to this woman,” Shaye Ogbonna, one of “God’s Country” writers, told culture and events editor Marc Malkin. Variety Virtual Sundance Studio presented by Audible. “Once you made that change, it opened up the movie… The world opened up because now we look at this stranger – you look at her and you see that she’s different from everything else in this world… This gave us opportunities to go beyond the original source material.

Director and co-writer Julian Higgins, who also worked on the 2014 short film adaptation of “Winter Light,” said Newton was perfect for the role of Sandra. “It was so clear to me that [Newton was] the person,” he said.

Newton plans “God’s Country” to be the last film she stars in. The actress noted that the film carries several powerful messages. The Sandra in “God’s Country” is named after Sandra Bland, a black activist who died in police custody days after being arrested during a traffic stop in 2015.

“I’ve supported Kimberly Crenshaw’s work with the African American Policy Forum and the #SayHerName movement, which she invented. And in this movie, right off the bat, we’re saying her name,” Newton said. not just talking about Sandra Bland I’m talking about all Sandra Blands – now, in the past [with] slavery [and] before that.”

Learn more about the conversation in the video above.