Mudbound tackles both race and gender in Hollywood — no small feat. The Netflix period drama opened AFI Fest on Thursday with an emotional story about the relationship between black sharecroppers and white farm owners in 1940s Mississippi.

Newlyweds Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) live on the family farm that’s tended to by Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan). Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jacksons’ son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return home from WWII after losing friends and taking lives. Despite the sharp racial divide in the community, Ronsel and Jamie become friends, creating a bond from shared memories and PTSD that no one else understands.  

At the opening-night gala, AFI President Bob Gazzale welcomed the audience to the TCL Chinese Theatre with a video celebrating women in film. But it was one woman’s night in particular: Dee Rees, introduced as “one of the bright lights of American film.”

Rees, the director and co-writer of Mudbound, emphasized how many female filmmakers were behind the camera, including cinematographer Rachel Morrison, composer Tamar-Kali, editor Mako Kamitsuna, sound mixer Pud Cusack and makeup artist Angie Wells.

“It’s important for us to be able to practice our craft,” Rees told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s an amazing group of women, and not just that they’re women, it’s that they’re actually excellent at what they do.”

The cast also praised Rees’ creative genius. Mulligan said the prospect of working with Rees is what initially drew her to the film.

“I knew that Dee was really special,” Mulligan told THR. “Maybe a man could have made a similarly brilliant film. I think the only difference is that the standards for women are so much higher that if a man had made this film, he’d be directing the next Star Wars. That isn’t often the case. There’s no meritocracy I suppose.”

Not only does the film address gender representation in Hollywood but also race relations in the United States.

Mudbound features parallel stories of white and black families coping with the trauma of WWII and also offers a look at how racism in the 1940s compares with modern racial tensions in America. That’s due in part to Rees’ co-writing of the story to center around two families’ symbiosis and shared experiences.

“I focused my work on rewriting monologues for Hap and Florence, so that they had resonance, so they had context. So it wasn’t just one family existing to support the other,” Rees said. “I really want each character to be well-rounded, each family to have their own agency and thrust.”

Mitchell believes race has become a taboo topic to discuss, but the film is filling a void in terms of diversity. Nobody understands the other side, he said, but the film's parallel structure helps audiences fully see both families.

“I think it makes the film unbiased and for those who don’t understand it, it helps them empathize,” Mitchell told THR. “So many times you see white people demonized and black people victimized, and you’re just like, how many times are we going to hear that story?”

According to Rees, Mudbound deals with what it means to be an American — and the silences and beliefs we unconsciously pass on.

“This is history, but it’s recent history,” Mulligan told THR. “And a lot of these attitudes that you see in the film are still held today, and I think people who share those beliefs have only become more vocal in the last two years, because they’ve been given permission to do so, so I think that’s why the film matters.”

Mudbound will be released on Netflix and in select theaters Nov. 17.