During the Q&A portion of the closing keynote conversation with Dee Rees at the Film Independent Forum, an aspiring filmmaker stepped up to the microphone and, through tears, expressed gratitude to the acclaimed director for being a black lesbian director that others can look up to. After pouring her heart out to the filmmaker, she asked, “Will you be my mentor?”
Genuinely touched, Rees was gracious for her kind words and smiled, “Well, now I have to say yes in front of all these people.” But she kept to her word referring her to a mentor program by Cassian Elwes and saying that she already has two mentees, but assured her that she can come on the set of her next film.
Rees’ answer to the aspiring young filmmaker reflects her work in that it feels grounded, genuine, and comes from a personal place.
As Rees talked to Film Independent president Josh Welsh about her filmmaking career, there’s a sense of modesty and humility. Anchored by her outstanding talent and vision, she has three distinct benchmarks that mark a trajectory that filmmakers dream of.
Her first feature, Pariah starring Adepero Oduye was very personal for her. It was after she quit her job in marketing and brand management and when she came out. “My parents thought I was having a nervous breakdown,” she said. Pariah was a response to what was going on in her life at the time.
The project was written as a feature for her thesis at NYU but was first made into a short that was praised on the festival circuit. Soon after, it was sculpted into a full-length feature. She said the black lesbian coming-of-age story was “made on layaway.”
When it arrived on the scene at Sundance in 2011, Focus Features picked it up. To many in the industry, the film wasn’t exactly marketable as it was followed the story of a black lesbian and was called Pariah. Even so, Rees stood by her work while working with Focus’ James Schamus and he supported it. “It’s important to pick good producers to work creatively,” she says of choosing people to work with. The film ended up winning her the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2012.
Pariah opened more doors for Rees. She worked struck a blind script deal with Focus where she wrote a script about a lesbian detective, which was never put into development as well as some TV work. She wrote a pilot called The Ville about her hometown of Nashville, but was never picked up. “They said no one wanted a show about Nashville,” Rees said about the pilot. “A year later Nashville came out.”
She stayed in the TV lane and wrote and directed the HBO movie Bessie about the legendary blues performer. Starring Queen Latifah, Rees was drawn to the story of not only Bessie, but Ma Rainey and “queer black women who knew their sexuality and self.”
She adds, “I wanted to use fame and the material to explore loneliness.” Rees points out one defining scene where Latifah is staring in the mirror naked, a scene where Rees calls it an “interrogation of self.”
“I care about subtext,” said Rees. “If you get that right, the text will flow.”
When the script for Rees’ upcoming film Mudbound first crossed her desk, she was skeptical. “I usually hate every script I read, but I loved this one,” she admitted. “I liked the internal monologues of the characters”
Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudboiund tells the story of two families pitted against one another by a ruthless social hierarchy, yet bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta. Producer Cassian Elwes brought it to her and said, “It’s yours if you want it.” It was the first time that this kind of opportunity was presented to Rees so she wasted no time.
“I jumped at it,” said Rees. “It made me dig into my own personal story and explore this dark symbiosis between two families.”
The film, which stars Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Rob Morgan, and Jonathan Banks, not only tells an epic story with Rees’ signature intimate filmmaking but continues her track record as an actor’s director.
“I love ensemble casts,” she said. “I love actors — that’s the thing I gravitate towards.”
The film, which will be released on November 17 was co-written by Rees and Virgil Williams. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was acquired by Netflix for $12.5 M. It also has awards season buzz surrounding it — all of which speaks to Rees’ enormous, yet modest talent.