Keep your eye on Dee Rees. Chances are you’re going to be seeing a lot of her this awards season.
Rees is the Tennessee-raised, historically black college-cultivated writer-director whose latest film, Mudbound, is already stirring up Oscar buzz, and rightfully so. Not since The Color Purple has there been a film so lush, so exhaustive and so thoughtful about rural life on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.
Mudbound, which Netflix will release Friday, is about two American families struggling to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The Jacksons are a black family who sharecrop on land owned by the McAllans, who are white. Their coexistence is marked by physical closeness and psychological distance, by interdependence and prejudice. Mudbound illustrates what happens when all of that gets stirred together in one of the hottest, dirtiest, most miserable places to be without air conditioning.
What makes Mudbound notable is that Rees is not interested in examining prejudice simply to say, “Look how awful this is” and then wallow in that awfulness. She’s interested in the consequences, both immediate and generational, of that prejudice and the complicated, unexpected ways those consequences surface in daily life. In one part of the film, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is suffering from pregnancy complications. The only person close enough to help her in time is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige). While Laura wants to get herself and her baby out of harm’s way, her father-in-law, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is stuck on the fact that the helping hand in question comes from a black person. Meanwhile, Florence is paralyzed by the fear of being blamed if something goes wrong, and how that would affect not just her but her entire family. Everyone is struggling to free themselves from a peat bog of hate and injustice except Pappy McAllan, who seems perfectly fine with letting himself drown before ever acknowledging black people as equals.
Rees favors restraint over melodrama. The result is that the emotional power of her films tends to sneak up on you because her hand in guiding the film feels practically imperceptible. She’s the Adam Smith of directing. Rees is not interested in showing off how she’s manipulating you. Instead, she presents the story and lets you sit in it.
When it comes to vision, to the ability to look at a location and a script and know what story you want to result, “I would say only really 20 to 25 percent of directors really have it to the degree that [Dee] does,” said Paris Barclay, a former president of the Directors Guild of America and one of Rees’ champions and mentors. “When she’s looking at a scene — and also, you know, she’s a writer as well — she’s constructing a scene, she’s always thinking about, ‘What is the most dynamic way I can bring this to life? With the fewest possible shots.’ She’s not about the adornment of work, she’s about creating this sort of dynamic moment.
“A lot of people are just making shots and hoping that in the editing room they’ll be able to figure out how to put them together in some attractive way. But Dee’s making a movie. She’s really thinking about the moment, where the camera needs to be to tell the story and how she can do it with a minimum of fuss. Some of that minimum of fuss creates dynamic and original shots because it’s all about the story. So you end up forgetting about Dee Rees the director and just get sucked into Bessie Smith [the subject of her 2015 biopic for HBO]. You just get sucked into the characters.”
In a way, that makes Rees rather brave because she dares to depart from the standard model of male directorial genius in Hollywood. Unlike David O. Russell, or Woody Allen, or Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, or, yes, Spike Lee, Rees isn’t using her movies to scream at you about what a good, interesting, different sort of director she is.
Her restraint is what ends up making Mudbound a more effective film than, say, Detroit. Both are about the ways racism infects people’s lives, but only the former looks at it from 360 degrees, as an ever-present part of the American condition rather than something that periodically boils over into inexplicable violence and evil.
The patience required to pull off that sort of storytelling doesn’t happen by accident.
“I’m just very into blocking [determining where to place actors and where they’ll move] and where you place people in relationship to each other,” Rees said during an interview in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “For example, if two people love each other, placing them far apart is more effective than placing them close together, because then they’re reaching for each other, the looks are longer. Or placing people who dislike each other in extreme discomfort, so putting [them] in this truck together. Things like that where the blocking helps inspire the actors, I’m thinking about that stuff and editing.”
Rees’ work arrives at a time when the fallout from public accusations of sexual predation against producer Harvey Weinstein continues daily, and we’re starting to peel back the various layers of how women are flattened by an industry that preys on insecurity. The women who work in it are finally airing, en masse, long-held frustrations with the limited space allowed for them there. Mudbound is an example of the fantastic art that’s lost by prioritizing an environment in which women like Rees are the exceptions. She’s basically the opposite of everything women are told to be in Hollywood.
She’s not white.
She’s not straight.
She’s not an actress.
She’s not the sort of woman who asks for permission.
She’s not interested in emulating a filmmaking model that turns directors into celebrities.
During a recent interview in New York, Rees, 40, was rocking a pair of suede powder-blue cowboy boots, jeans, a white button-down with a black zigzag pattern across the front and a blazer. Her hair was braided along the sides of her head, with the remainder puffed out into a frohawk. This is a woman who knows who she is and likes herself. And it shows not just in her personal style but also in her filmmaking.
“She is, first of all, one of the most sure black women I’ve ever met in my life, so she knew exactly what she wanted,” said Jason Mitchell, who plays Ronsel Jackson in Mudbound and is best known for playing Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. “She also created this family amongst us. Like, we did acting workshops together, we did all kind of different things together, and she made it safe enough for us to be able to kick it into a high gear and still be able to hug it out immediately after.”
Rob Morgan, who plays Ronsel’s father, Hap, worked with Rees on her 2011 debut feature, Pariah. “From the first time working with Dee, I saw that she was very secure in what she wanted,” Morgan said. “That was a crazy environment because we were shooting in this one brownstone. We used the same brownstone, three different floors to make different sets. Even in that kind of environment, Dee was so secure and strong and able to communicate exactly what she wanted. To see her do this, Mudbound, with obviously a bigger budget … she’s still just the same Dee, if not sharper.”
Rees’ directorial style is remarkable for a few reasons. We know, thanks to loads of research, that women in leadership positions are often faced with an unfair choice of having to be seen as either likable or competent. The pressure to conform to gender-based stereotypes of women as caretakers and consensus-builders tends to breed passivity and insecurity at first, and then rage and resentment later. Or it demands an irritating false modesty because women aren’t supposed to be aware of their own talents. That would make them bitches. Or witches — take your pick. If navigating workplace gender politics in the rest of America is a minefield, in Hollywood, it’s like trying to ride a unicycle through volcanoes. Because Hollywood, and directing in particular, is so dominated by men, there’s immense pressure for women to emulate the behavior, style and approach to the work that men do. After all, that’s what is recognized as successful and as valid.
If you’re a female director, you’re already handicapped, and the best way to make up for that handicap is to adopt as many male affectations as possible. You see it when actresses try their hand at directing and their red carpet style switches from girly or sexy to something more androgynous. (Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win a directing Oscar, for The Hurt Locker, a film that parrots an obsession with violence of a bunch of men before her.) Rees rejects the idea that you have to be like all the men to be seen as a good director. Her blackness and her queerness made her too far afield anyway.
By the time she began directing, which is her second career, Rees had a personal foundation secured in years of attending Tennessee State homecomings with her parents while growing up in the Antioch neighborhood of Nashville. Before she asserted her identity as Dee, she was Diandrea, the name her parents gave her. She went to Florida A&M University and earned an MBA.
“I think FAM was good because … it wasn’t this abstraction. Like, ‘Oh, we really are different,’ ” Rees said. “We didn’t have to agree with somebody just ’cause they were the other black kid. You have wildly different groups and ideas. I first started really understanding how interesting we are and how diverse we are. Like kids from California are different from the kids from Detroit, and it’s like the kids from D.C. are different from everybody else. … I’m not Diandrea The Black Girl, I’m just Diandrea.”
Rees decided to study film after four years of working as a marketing executive for brands such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive and came out to her family at the same time. She explored that experience in Pariah, which stars Adepero Oduye.
Rees initially came out to her parents and grandmother, who still live in Tennessee, over the phone after she’d moved to begin film school at New York University in 2004. Her mother was horrified; her grandmother wasn’t happy either. Both of them trekked to New York to figure out what was up. Her father came the following week. Her father, she said, was afraid that Rees had been sexually abused as a child. She wasn’t.
“I’m in love with a woman,” she told them.
There was some initial tension and pushback, but gradually it eased.
At first, “my grandmother was like, ‘We don’t do that,’ ” Rees said. “But in a weird way, that was all my grandmother ever said on it. And then in the Thanksgivings since, it was my mom who was saying a prayer about being thankful for who we are, and my grandmother said, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ And my mom was like, ‘Well, there’s one thing,’ and my grandmother was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ ”
Rees studied with Lee, who became one of her biggest advocates. She came to filmmaking knowing that since she already exists outside of the narrow constraints for women in Hollywood, there’s no need to shape herself into something she’s not. Rees is hyperaware of the fact that Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy. She sees herself as a force for change.
“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women,” said Rees, whose cinematographer, composer, lead makeup artist, sound engineer and editor on Mudbound are women. “That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”
Rees’ knack for pinpointing and communicating what she wants is especially valuable in independent filmmaking, where directors are working on shorter timelines and with smaller budgets. The luxury of waffling simply isn’t available. The entire shoot for Mudbound, which clocks in at 134 minutes, took just 28 days. Most of it was shot in Louisiana, while the World War II battle scenes were shot in Budapest, Hungary. Black directors especially are forced to be intentional because they’re already working on a tightrope. They can’t afford to shoot fewer than the planned number of scenes in a given workday or not have a contingency plan for on-set crises because those are the cudgels used against them to say, “This person is unreliable. This person shouldn’t be hired for [insert subsequent project here].”
Rees has a selflessness that’s similar to that of a coach. Actors, Barclay said, respect that.
“She’s got enough [life] experience that her intuition is very strong,” Barclay said. “People say, ‘I’ll go with you.’ People will take that ride with Dee.”
Pariah impressed Barclay the way he was impressed by Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in 1978. Her film played in only 24 theaters at the height of its release but netted praise from industry figures and critics. Rees won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Director at the 2011 Gotham Awards. Her cinematographer Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance.
“From the first scene to the end, I didn’t leave my chair,” Barclay said of Pariah. “I think if it had actually come out this year, it would probably be nominated for best picture, because the environment has changed in such a short time. The film, even on a small scale, as moving as that, would get some sort of recognition. That wasn’t available to her just five years ago.”
Now, Rees stands on the precipice of a bigger, brighter future. With Mudbound, she uses that position to show just how capable she is with a group of experienced, award-winning actors and talented female crew members.
She’s so invested in creating a path for others that she’s already thinking about using her home as a creative retreat. Rees named her property in the Hudson River Valley of New York F.A.C., which stands for “Free Artists of Color.”
“When my partner and I die, we wanna … make it like a residency where artists come and work and get a little space,” she said. When she talks about F.A.C., she sounds like a woman with her eye on recreating the magic of Lorraine Hansberry’s upstate New York creative compound, which the playwright winkingly named “Chitterling Heights.”
“It’s good to have land and freedom and to be able to create and also have the space to be,” Rees said. She likes “being in a rural area because it also forces a closeness, because you need your neighbor when your driveway is iced out or to help each other with mail.”