When did you come into this story? Did you read the story in the New Yorker, or did they reach out to you? How did it all happen?
I was approached by both ProPublica, Amazon, and JuVee production, Viola Davis’ company, and they wanted me to executive produce the film. And they know I had many projects on my slate. And to go and tell a story about the North Carolina family, they thought, “Oh, maybe he’s too busy to do that, but maybe be a good a producer for the story.” And, of course, reading Lizzie Presser’s article blew my mind. I thought, “Oh, my God, this story needs to have a wider exposition.” And we start working on that. At one point, especially after meeting the family, the first time I went there, it was for Gertrude Reels’ 95th birthday, and the whole family was there. People came from all over the country to celebrate with the grandmother, the matriarch. And I felt at home. I felt that I was with people that could have been my own family. And so, I knew what the film would be. I talked with them. I spent a lot of time discussing them with Lizzie, picking her head about all the encounters she had. And I knew what the story could be, and I knew how strong it could be.
Why did you make the women the center of the story?
That’s the history of the world. The women had to be the ones ultimately to save the family. Men can leave the woman with a child. The woman, it’s more difficult to leave the child behind. So, the woman has to provide. And in that case, the family members say themselves; even Melvin says, “Well, my grandfather had to leave the land to Gertrude because he knew she would do the job.” That’s the kind of responsibility that women had to bear. And I’m sure within your family, there are pretty much a lot of situations where people would really rather trust the mother or the grandmother than the father or the grandfather. That’s why I knew the next generation, Mamie and Kim, are exactly the ones to pick up the tab and pick up the fight. And that’s great.
I could have built the film around the imprisonment of those two men. I didn’t because I didn’t want to do another victimized film. I wanted to make a film about human beings, about strong women, about people, resilience, and people who have a greater understanding of the world than people living in a big city. Because what they went through is at the core of what has been going on in this country. So, that’s why they are representative of a lot of people.
It’s such a bleak story. And yet, the family has a lot of humor in the way that they talk about it. Why is that important, and why was it important to show that in the movie?