By Vanessa Zimmer
Director and co-writer Julian Higgins describes his feature-film debut, God’s Country, as a study of what happens when a woman’s moral code and ethics don’t serve her well. Another way of looking at it: It’s about how too many wrongs can turn a woman to calm, cold anger.
That woman is played handily by Thandiwe Newton, who nails calm and cold in the neo-western/thriller, which premiered Sunday at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. As audience member Kimberle wrote in the post-premiere Q&A: “Can’t catch my breath. Newton was otherworldly. Oscar-worthy performance.”
The only Black woman for miles around in a mountain setting in the West, Sandra lives in a beautiful canyon and teaches public speaking at the university. When she dares to ask a couple of white hunters not to park on her property for access to some prime hunting ground, the wild ride that makes this a thriller begins.
The film is based upon a short story, Winter Light, by James Lee Burke, which Higgins read in 2010. “After the 2016 election, the themes of the story sort of bubbled up again,” he said in the Q&A. Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbonna changed the white male character in the Burke story to a Black woman, opening up a whole new layer to the narrative.
Newton noted that she had long wanted to make her activism part of her art. “So this was a privilege,” she said. “I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt because of that.”
Her performance relies as much upon speaking with the eyes and body as upon the spoken word. “There was as much power in the silence as in the words,” Newton said. “It is one of the most emotionally truthful roles I’ve ever played.”