Keep your eye on ‘Mudbound’ director Dee Rees: She’s going to be a household name during awards season Tennessee-bred and FAMU-educated, she’s upending traditional Hollywood roles

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.

Mudbound

Steve Dietl / Netflix

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.

Mary J. Blige and Dee Rees during filming of “Mudbound”

Steve Dietl / Netflix

“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.”

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.

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.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

“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.”

“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women. That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”

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.”

Nadia Hamilton was inspired to launch MagnusCards by her brother with autism This tech designer’s new app is a video game for individuals with cognitive needs

When 30-year-old app designer Nadia Hamilton was growing up, she noticed that her younger brother Troy, who was and is living with autism, needed support in completing everyday tasks. Brushing teeth and getting dressed were especially difficult.

Troy would go into the bathroom to pick up his toothbrush but would wait for family members to prompt him on the next task.

“OK, step one, you’re going to put the toothpaste on your toothbrush. Step two, then you’re going to do this and that and this and that,” Hamilton said. “If he did not have that support, he was stuck.

“This is something that people with autism and cognitive special needs in general tend to struggle with: knowing or feeling comfortable doing the step-by-step instructions that are involved in a process.”

By the time Troy Hamilton, who is now 28, graduated from high school, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for his continued personal and social development. So Hamilton used her experiences growing up with Troy to launch Magnusmode and create MagnusCards, an app in the form of a video game that focuses on providing step-by-step instructions for completing tasks.

“I got an idea. I think I was around 8 years old. I knew that Troy loved video games, and I knew that he loved using the official strategy guides for each video game. A strategy guide is kind of like a step-by-step instruction to help you get through a stage in a game. So I knew that this guide enabled him to play the games on his own. I started thinking, I’m like, ‘OK, I like to draw. What if I can utilize my creativity to help him to navigate life around the home?’ ”

Brushing teeth, making toast, preparing for school and bedtime are part of MagnusCards’ system. In its preparation stage, Hamilton would use tape to post instructions to the walls of the apartment she shared with Troy. Troy would then go through each activity by looking at the visuals and re-enacting what he saw step by step.

“This afforded him with the confidence and with the safety net of knowing that he was going to get to the end of the activity, and he would not miss any steps, and he could do it on his own,” Hamilton explained. “It was pretty much from the strategy guides from video games, I created the ultimate strategy guide for life.”

Hamilton graduated from the University of Toronto, where she studied history and political science and earned a bachelor’s degree. She started working with individuals with special needs to pay her way through college. Going into their homes as one of her duties gave her insight on how other users could benefit from the app. So while developing MagnusCards, she was able to focus on an all-inclusive product that would benefit others seeking to maintain everyday work or life habits. The gaming program offers full customization so caregivers, parents, teachers and others can use it.

“So if somebody’s used to doing laundry a certain way with their laundry machine with shirts that are a certain color, the pictures and the text can be customized on the card decks so that their experience is unique, and the instruction is relayed in a way that is important and digestible to them,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton spoke with The Undefeated about family support, being a change-maker in the world of technology and autism, and the infrastructure of MagnusCards.


Is your family supportive with the app?

Oh, yeah. Everybody. (Nadia and Troy have two other siblings.) I come from a really supportive family in general, so whenever somebody wants to do something or has an idea to do something, the first people that we even tell is the family. We are always together. We grew up being always together, and we do everything together. To this day I live in Waterloo, because my business is based here, but I go back on the weekend. I do so because I want to be near my family and I want to spend time with Troy.

How has your business spanned into a tool that’s helping a demographic of individuals living with autism?

I started out by just wanting to help my brother, but I quickly realized that there was millions of people who were suffering with these challenges worldwide, and 44 million in North America alone. So I entered a social business competition because I wanted to build a company that was dedicated to supporting people like Troy. It’s very much an extension of this family paradigm because every time I meet somebody, or I see somebody, or I even hear somebody when I’m out in the community that has autism, or Down syndrome, or Asperger’s, or dementia, or another cognitive special need, I see them as my brother. I see them as my family. This is all about elevating a group of people in society that have been underserved. That’s kind of why we do what we do. It’s basically about helping people to get outside of themselves and live in the community, and help that community understand that they have a place within it as well, and help them to understand that they have so much to offer.

How did your partnership with Colgate begin?

Within the app there’s this oral care category, and brushing teeth is always something that’s been challenging for my brother. It’s not that the act itself, the physical act, is challenging, which it is for many people. It’s really just the fact that if it’s not done perfectly, and by perfectly I mean in the routine that he’s used to, then his whole day can go downhill from there.

Brushing teeth is the first thing you do when you get up, and if it’s not done right, first of all, there’s all sorts of health implications if you don’t do it right. But, second of all, it ruins the person’s day. I knew that my brother really would benefit from some card decks in this category and other people that I’ve worked with as well.

I started thinking, OK, we need an oral care partner. I was thinking about Colgate because a couple reasons. One, my brother only uses Colgate. Another big reason was that we’re building a global company, and there’s a global need for autism.

I reached out to the executive team. I finally got a meeting. It took months. I knew from that handshake [after the meeting] that there was a strong chance that we were going to move forward because everybody just seemed to understand the importance of that when you’re saying that everybody deserves a future that they can smile about, that means everybody. So it’s this message of inclusivity and, also, this commitment to putting your money where your mouth is that gave me the confidence to believe that we were going to move forward with Colgate.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

I guess the fact that nobody’s really ever done anything like this before. There’s an extreme lack of support and services in the community for people with all sorts of cognitive special needs. And, essentially, what we’re doing here is building a whole new method of connecting these individuals with the world. And, to my knowledge, nobody is doing anything like this. So it’s very difficult when you’re doing something brand-new because you don’t really have anything to measure it against at first. So it can be scary. It can be challenging in the fact that I don’t come from a business background. I had to learn everything from scratch, everything, including sales. I think I draw a lot from my intuition, but, also, I had fantastic mentors along the way. And, also, I’m fueled by a passion and a competitiveness that is, I guess, rooted in athletics but also rooted in my love of my family.

How many people do you employ?

There’s 15 people on our team. Some are part-time, some are full-time, some are contractors, but we’re all a team. It was just me for a long time, but we have grown pretty fast.

How would you like to expand MagnusCards?

I’d really like to invite other people to come on board. It started out grass-roots, very basic, in an apartment building with a girl, and a brother, and a dream, quite frankly. But now we have a team, and we really are looking to share our mission and vision.

Daily Dose: 11/9/17 O.J. Simpson gets kicked out of a Vegas hotel

Thursday was another TV day, so if you get a chance to check out Around The Horn, please do so. I pulled a bit of a prank, so let me know how that goes over.

School shootings are a massive problem in the country. They’re basically everyday occurrences on balance, which overall should scare you very much. Instead of trying to get lawmakers to, you know, help prevent people from getting the types of guns that can kill in mass quantities, we take a different route. Like down in Miami, where a school is offering up “bulletproof panels” for sale to kids to put in their backpacks, in case of a shooting. This is what it’s come to.

KFC thinks they slick. On Twitter, it follows exactly 11 people. If you’re not familiar with its “secret recipe” that includes 11 herbs and spices, where have you been? This is not a reflection on their chicken, which is a whole separate discussion. But, one guy figured out its little social media strategy and it’s actually kind of brilliant. As it turns out, they follow five Spice Girls and six guys named Herb. So, once homeboy cracked the code fast food company hooked him up with a serious gift.

O.J. Simpson is out here wilding. The man who is widely believed to have gotten away with a double murder, then served all sorts of time in prison for an unrelated crime, is now out. And not only is he out, he’s partying with ladies, just like he was before he went to prison. Thursday he got kicked out of a hotel for being drunk in public, which is just an incredibly bad look. I have no idea what the limitations of his parole are, and whether this will send him back to prison. But dude might want to slow down, if he can.

It appears that Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott won’t be playing this week. His on-again-off-again relationship with the NFL has now turned into a matter of public ridicule on multiple levels. Another court has decided that he can’t play and his six-game suspension will now be served. Who knows if it will be off again by Tuesday? This case, by the way, has completely sent Cowboys owner Jerry Jones into the next stratosphere with anger. He’s trying to sue the NFL over commissioner Roger Goodell, which we all know is about Zeke.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you don’t know who Masai Uriji is, you should. He runs the Toronto Raptors and he was born in Nigeria, and is largely responsible for the resurgence of that franchise in the NBA. He also happens to be very much a part of trying to grow the game in Africa.

Snack Time: Planes get grounded for a lot of different reasons. But if you’re the dude who gets caught by his wife cheating to the point that they gotta land the plane? My guy, that’s not good.

Dessert: I can’t stop looking at these shoes.

On the fifth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city,’ California athletes reflect on the epic ‘Sing About Me’ DeMar DeRozan, Chiney Ogwumike and Arron Afflalo remain emotional about Lamar’s most powerful song

I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo / He was the one to follow.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Black Boy Fly”

Now in his second stint with the Orlando Magic, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, recently of the Sacramento Kings, was one of the key pieces in a 2012 offseason blockbuster: then-superstar center Dwight Howard’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Five years ago, Affalo’s name wasn’t only ringing off in the city internationally known as the home of Walt Disney World — it was also popping off in his hometown of Compton, California.

On Oct. 22, 2012, Afflalo’s fellow Compton native, Kendrick Lamar, had released his much-anticipated second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope). Among big hits songs like “B— Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Poetic Justice” (featuring Drake), “Black Boy Fly” was a bonus record — an homage to hometown heroes whose talents survived the streets of South Central Los Angeles: He was the only leader foreseeing brighter tomorrows / He would live in the gym / We was living in sorrow. Lamar rapped these lyrics, remembering the days when Afflalo was the star of their Centennial High School basketball squad: Total envy of him, he made his dream become a reality/ Actually making it possible to swim/ His way up outta Compton/ With further to accomplish.

Caption: Fan-made video of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Boy Fly.”

Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.

DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors looks on during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 7, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination with The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”

The album’s standout track is an epic bit of storytelling called “Sing About Me. I’m Dying of Thirst.” The song was produced in 2011 by the three-time Grammy-nominated Gabriel “Like” Stevenson of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop trio Pac Div while on Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park tour. “He hit me back in a couple hours like, this is crazy,” Like recalled Kendrick’s text message after hearing his beat. “I’m writing to it right now in a room with lit candles. I’m like, word, that’s tight,” he said, laughing.

An appropriate setting given the haunting chorus: When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down/ My main concern/ Promise that you will sing about me/ Promise that you will sing about me. The overall narrative of the song is all too familiar to Lamar, Afflalo and DeRozan. The three verses emerge from three different perspectives. The rage inflicted on black bodies unite them. The tales of gun violence, societal ignorance of women’s pain, and survivor’s remorse are common in the United States and around the world.

Arron Afflalo #4 of the Orlando Magic handles the ball during a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 9, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

“[Kendrick and I] grew up in the same environment,” Afflalo says. “I didn’t really get a sense of nobody else seeing big things in their life the way I did. It’s fulfilling to know there was another young kid, at the same school, that had the same types of dreams. If not bigger.” Those dreams, though, were cultivated through nightmares.

Dumb n—-s like me never prosper/ Prognosis of a problem child, I’m proud and well-devoted/ This Piru s— been in me forever/ So forever I’ma push it wherever, whenever/ And I love you ’cause you love my brother like you did/ Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/ And if I die before your album drop, I hope… **gunshots**

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

“‘[Sing About Me]’ is the song version of an epic movie,” said Chiney Ogwumike, a rising ESPN broadcaster and forward on the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year is a native of suburban Houston. She was a star sophomore at Stanford University — 200 miles north of Compton — when good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped five Octobers ago.

And she’s right. In many ways, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a remix of Tre Styles’ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) viewpoint in 1991’s landmark Boyz N The Hood—a young black male who grew up in the ‘hood and witnessed its daily joys, pains and fears from the frontline. It’s a comparison Lamar embraced on the song’s second half “Dying of Thirst.” Whereas YG’s 2014’s seminal debut My Krazy Life pinpoints the revolving door of gangbanging and street life seen through Doughboy (Ice Cube).

“The whole purpose … is to describe that lost child that you don’t hear about,” said Ogwumike, focusing on the song’s first verse. Featuring a conversation between Lamar and “a friend” (voiced also by Lamar), following the murder of the friend’s brother, the moment recalls the legendary Either they don’t know Tre and Doughboy conversation following Ricky’s death in Boyz. Twenty years year, Lamar’s friend reasons in the song, America still didn’t know didn’t show or didn’t care what happened in his ‘hood and to his brother.

“It’s crazy, because you never notice it until you’re on the outside, when you’re able to look back at it,”said DeRozan. “I went to a Crip high school [Compton High]. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I talk just like him. I walk just like him. I do this just like him. It’s instilled in you, and you follow those rules in a sense of what comes with it. It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t make it out.”

“But now,” Ogwumike said, “you do hear about this child. Now … because of these protests.”

DeRozan said a lot of people should just sit down and dissect “Sing About Me.” “They should understand what he’s talking about. This is an everyday thing! It’s still going on all over the world. There’s all types of inner cities.”

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The verse is deeper than rap. It’s what Keisha Ross of the Missouri Psychological Association describes as historical trauma. Life in the ghetto is traumatizing. I’m fortunate you believe in a dream, Kendrick raps from the perspective of his slain friend. This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine. Anger, hatred and aggression, she said, are both self-inflicted and inflicted on members of one’s own group. “A lot of people know Kendrick Lamar for who I am today,” he said in 2013. “[But] for me to think the way I do, I had to come from a dark space.”

“I think of people I grew up with, that love basketball and love music in my community,” said Ogwumike. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like not a lot of people understand this day-to-day. A lot of hoopers come from certain situations where they are — or they know people that have been — affected by violence. It’s ingrained within sports culture. It’s a humbling reminder that you have to play every possession with a purpose. You gotta live your life with a purpose overall because you want people to sing about you when you’re gone.”

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system / These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ’em / See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ’em / Back to where they used to be, then I’ll probably be in the denim / Or a family gene that show women how to be woman / Or better yet, a leader, you need her to learn something / Then you probably need to beat her.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

If the first verse is an example of the suddenness of the loss of black life as it relates to men, the second leans into the harrowing experience of how black women are expunged from society. While it’s tempting to think of it as a 2017 version of Tupac Shakur’s 1991 “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” the verse is actually a continuation of the cautionary tale “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” found on Lamar’s “final warm-up,” 2011’s Section.80. In it, Keisha is a prostitute who is raped and murdered. In “Sing About Me,” her sister (voiced by Lamar) responds, furious that Lamar would use her life for gain. This, too, is based on real life.

“I met her … and she went at me about her sister, Keisha,” Lamar told MTV days after the album’s release, “basically saying she didn’t want her … business out there and if your album do come out, don’t mention me, don’t sing about me.” Keisha’s sister falls down the same path. How could you ever just put her on blast and s—?/ Judging her past and s—?, he raps, Well, it’s completely my future / Her n—a behind me right now asking for a– and s— / And I’ma need that $40 / Even if I gotta f—, suck and swallow.

She doesn’t die in a hail of gunfire. And with beings such as Shaniya Davis, Sandra Bland and the 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as tragic contemporaries, Keisha’s sister, her voice, her pain and the resentment for the only society she knows just fades away. Almost as if she was never here.

Chiney Ogwumike #13 of the Connecticut Sun prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Lynx during a WNBA game on September 4, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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“When you have a man who uses his platform to show how women are independent, but then also face even more adversity than their brothers — it’s everything,” Ogwumike said with a sigh. “That was superpowerful to me, about how she’s trying to make a way for herself in any way possible. But that way may end up being her demise. It needs to be told. It needs to be destigmatized.”

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me / And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me / In a direction to speak on something / That’s realer than the TV screen / By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between/ Her personal life, I was like ‘It need to be told’/ Cursing the life of 20 generations after her soul/ Exactly what would happen if I ain’t continue rappin’/ Or steady being distracted by money, drugs and four-fives …

Kendrick Lamar and DeMar DeRozan are friends. They’re both from Compton. Their high schools are separated by three miles. What links the two creatives isn’t recognizable off the rip — both suffer from survivor’s remorse.

For Lamar, stories of those who never escaped Compton are spirits tattooed on his soul as his career continues to ascend, as his all-time great portfolio has fans including former president Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Compton’s own Serena Williams, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dave Chappelle. These tattooed spirits will never see the birth of the “new Compton” led by Mayor Aja Brown. Why did they have to die while I live? How could God let this happen Did they suffer?

For DeRozan, a three-time All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, success does little to erase the pain of the past. In many ways, it only intensifies. “It’s something I deal with,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends that was with me when I was younger, but I took a different route … Then you get a phone call hearing something happened. You start to say, ‘Damn, if I just would’ve took them with me, or if they would’ve stayed with me, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ”

good kid, m.A.A.d city, a half-decade later, is a form of counseling for DeRozan. It’s way deeper than words over beats. It’s his life on what has become the metaphorical wax. But perhaps more than any lyric from the song, its final lines resonate more than anything as he prepares to enter his ninth season in Toronto — 2,500 miles from the place he first called home: Compton.

Am I worth it, Kendrick ponders. Did I put enough work in?

“That’s everything,” DeMar said. “You get to a point where you start questioning yourself sometimes. People don’t feel my pain, and my passion that I’m putting into it. But in the midst of questioning yourself, you find a new inspiration to keep pushing, and be even greater to get that point across.”

He pauses for a second. “I take that approach in everything that I do.”

Fox Searchlight parties with the stars of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and ‘The Shape of Water’ Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — Fox Searchlight feted its latest offerings, including the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tale Battle of the Sexes, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, starring Tyrion Lannister (er, Peter Dinklage) with a swanky party Sunday night.

The studio held the party, a fixture here at the Toronto International Film Festival for more than 30 years, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which was specially built for opera and ballet performances. In attendance: Octavia Spencer, Billie Jean King, Andy Serkis, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Sarah Silverman, Zachary Quinto, Natalie Morales, Michael Shannon, James McAvoy, Frances McDormand and Bill Pullman.

So nobody, basically.

I went with another writer who warned me not to eat dinner because the food would be great. And there’d be plenty of it, because if there’s nothing else reliable about Hollywood types, they don’t really eat. Journalists, on the other hand, are shameless that way. Studio parties are a curious mix of industry professionals, actors and writers, and mostly you’re trying to find a good way to butt into famous people’s conversations before you wander off to the bar or grab an hors d’œuvre from a caterer’s tray. Oh, and it’s also a good way to see how tall people are in real life. McAvoy, for instance, is quite short. The women, of course, are all skinnier than seems humanly possible, but you knew that.

Anyhow, both Battle of the Sexes and The Shape of Water are hot tickets here, and I managed to catch both on Monday.

Battle of the Sexes

Courtesy of TIFF

The script for Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, The Full Monty) can feel a bit obvious, a common occurrence in biopics where people’s lives get boiled down to their Wikipedia essentials. For example, we see Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King’s WTA rival, in conversation with her husband about their suspicion that King is a closeted lesbian:

Barry Court (James McKay): Isn’t she ashamed?

Margaret Court: That’s exactly what she is. And her game’s gonna fall to pieces.

And then five minutes later, that’s exactly what happens, and King loses her title to Court.

The best part of Battle of the Sexes, which is directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is the titular faceoff between King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell). Dayton and Faris have faithfully recreated the 1973 exhibition match, which took place in the Houston Astrodome, right down to the Vegas-style plumage and cabana boys, and Riggs’ ridiculous jacket plugging Sugar Daddy candy. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but Battle of the Sexes tends to exaggerate the size difference between Riggs and King. Carell’s Riggs is a bit hulking and over-the-hill, while Stone appears daintier than King in her prime.

But the big issue with Battle of the Sexes may just be how much territory it cedes to Riggs, or rather, Carell-as-Riggs, who frankly kinda steals the movie. Some of that is the nature of Riggs’ personality: He’s a clown with a gambling problem who, instead of fixing himself, charms everyone into abetting him.

He’s a troll, yes. But he’s a charismatic troll.

The other factor that doesn’t necessarily serve Stone, or King’s story for that matter, is that Battle of the Sexes offers little in the way of revelations about King. That’s certainly a challenge, considering that she’s been a public figure for 45 years, but it’s not impossible. One exception: When King finally beats Riggs, we see her alone in the locker room after the match, crying in relief. Pressure is a privilege, as King likes to say, but one way or another, it will extract its pound of flesh.

The Shape of Water

Courtesy of TIFF

What a great time to be anybody associated with The Shape of Water, the delightful, fantastical film from director Guillermo del Toro, which just recently won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

The Shape of Water is, on its face, about a mute maid for the fictional Occom Aerospace Research Center named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who, in 1962, falls in love with a sea creature that has the ability to heal people. The U.S. is in the midst of the space race and is searching for something, anything, to give it a leg up on the Russians. And in del Toro’s movie, the leg just happens to be attached to a sorta-human-sorta-reptilian-sorta-amphibian sea creature who’s worshipped as a god in the Amazon. An American Occom operative named Strickland (Shannon) has captured the creature and brought it to America, where he’s now holding it captive and torturing it with a cattle prod. Eliza works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and eventually brings her and her best friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Spencer), into a plan to save the creature, known simply as The Asset (Doug Jones).

But of course, The Shape of Water is about so much more than rescuing a sea creature. It’s about highlighting the cruelty that results from a need to conquer, and the damage that can be done when good men do nothing. And it’s about the dangers of being so consumed with the past that the present passes you by. Still, The Shape of Water offers hope that hearts and minds can truly be changed for the better, even in the most stubborn of individuals.

As Strickland, Shannon basically embodies the worst qualities of a certain kind of man writ large: a priggish, entitled, mansplaining alpha male who seems to have swept in straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Giles, on the other hand, is a committed advertising artist who refuses to acknowledge that modern times — and, in his case, photography — are passing him by. He’s consumed with watching Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Shirley Temple and Mr. Ed, and he insists on turning a blind eye to the violence being inflicted on civil rights activists in Alabama and Mississippi.

It’s easy to make much of the fact that Spencer is revisiting the role of maid in this film, and what’s more, playing one in an aeronautics facility, especially so soon after playing the enterprising Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures. But to reduce Spencer’s role in The Shape of Water simply to “the help” does a disservice both to Spencer’s artistry and the film’s message.

Eliza is literally voiceless, and at work, Zelda is often the one translating for her. In a touching moment after the film’s premiere Monday night, Spencer revealed that she has a brother who is deaf and mute. When they were growing up, he insisted that Spencer and the rest of their family speak rather than learn sign language, a decision Spencer says she regrets to this day.

Set off by an uplifting score by Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water will be one of fall’s most anticipated and highly treasured treats.

Drake really wants Vince Carter to come home Day 4 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — At this point, the most magical words Drake could hear come out of Vince Carter’s mouth might be, “Hold on, we’re going home.”

In July, Carter, 40, signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. But at a Q-and-A after the premiere of The Carter Effect at the Toronto International Film Festival, Drake made his feelings plain: He wants the man who launched Vinsanity to come back to this city.

“It would be amazing, hopefully, for Vince to give us one last chance to not just give him a standing ovation for one night or two nights out of the year,” Drake said.

Saturday’s Carter lovefest (with the star basketball player nowhere in sight) was something to behold. The premiere was studded with sports and music notables: LeBron James, Cory Joseph, Akon, Director X (the guy who caused a sensation with the James Turrell-inspired visuals of “Hotline Bling”), sprinter Andre De Grasse, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, and former Raptors Chris Bosh and Patrick Patterson were among those in attendance. And since it was a bright, sunny afternoon, Drake fans were lined up everywhere for a glimpse of their hometown rapper.

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Drake was an executive producer of The Carter Effect, along with James and his longtime business partner Maverick Carter.

“Me being from Ohio, when Vince signed with Nike, he actually made me believe that putting on those damn shoes would make me jump to the rim,” James joked after the screening.

Director X appears in the film and likened himself to John the Baptist and Drake to Jesus when it comes to Toronto and hip-hop. I asked him where Carter fits into that metaphor.

“He’s Moses,” X answered.

I also had a chance to talk to Mona Halem, a party host who had a front-row seat to the transformation Carter brought with him to Toronto, a city so unacquainted with basketball that its fans didn’t know they were supposed to be quiet when Raptors players were shooting free throws.

Halem, who also appears in the film, is a cross between an NBA doyenne, unofficial Toronto ambassador and social scene producer. She puts interesting people together with liquor and good music and has made it her personal art form here.

“Because basketball and entertainment around basketball was more popular in the U.S., [Carter] shone a light on Toronto,” Halem said. “It was like, ‘Oh, what’s this place Toronto?’ Everyone thinks we live in igloos and it’s so cold.”

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Courtesy of TIFF

Director Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in a way, has been her life’s work.

Strain, who is a professor at Northeastern University (she canceled last week’s class to attend TIFF), has been working on Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart for 14 years. Most of that time has been spent raising more than $1.5 million to make the film. The rights for film clips, music and other properties cost about $300,000.

I spoke to Strain on Sunday morning before she departed for Boston so her students wouldn’t miss a second week of class. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart will air in the future on PBS, and it’s a deep dive into the jam-packed 34 years of Hansberry’s life and the world that created the fictional Younger family of A Raisin in the Sun. Strain said she became taken with Hansberry when she was a 17-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother took her to see a community theater production of the autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.

“You know how you know something in your gut?” Strain asked. “[That’s] how I felt when I was exposed to Lorraine Hansberry’s words.”

In Sighted Eyes, Strain makes it clear that Hansberry is so much more than the one-paragraph biography schoolchildren get during Black History Month before they watch the film adaptation of her celebrated play. In fact, early in the movie, one of Hansberry’s contemporaries insists on making it clear that Hansberry was not a liberal but a “radical leftist.”

I was astonished to learn Hansberry began her career as a journalist before venturing into playwriting, and even more astonished to learn that she’d basically mapped out her life, and told her would-be husband what it was going to be like, when she was just 23 years old. This woman did not waste time. Strain fell in love with Hansberry’s sense of humor: It’s hard not to crack up upon learning Hansberry bought a house on 2 acres in New York and named the place “Chitterling Heights.” She sounds like someone I’d desperately want to be friends with if she were still alive.

Sighted Eyes also works as a bit of mythbusting. My eyes grew large when Strain informed me that I, like so many others, had been fooled by this photo, supposedly of Hansberry dancing with writer James Baldwin. It’s not her but rather a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker from Louisiana. There are no photos, at least none that Strain could find, of Baldwin and Hansberry together despite their close friendship.

Obama’s foreign policy comes alive — really! — in ‘The Final Year’ and a venture outside the festival zone Day 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — So far, my schedule at the Toronto International Film Festival has been heavy on documentaries, including ones on Grace Jones, André Leon Talley and Vince Carter.

I spent Saturday morning enmeshed in the brains of a bunch of foreign policy wonks while watching The Final Year from director Greg Barker. The film follows former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes and former Secretary of State John Kerry as they try to implement President Barack Obama’s foreign policy goals in his final year as president.

The premise sounds about as dry as it gets. But The Final Year turned out to be an interesting film, and not just because of what was happening on the screen. TIFF really is an international festival: I’ve had conversations with journalists from Russia and a Ugandan-born Brit, and it’s not unusual to hear people speaking multiple languages. So it’s also an opportunity to hear what other people are thinking of Americans right now. And that definitely came through in the screening for The Final Year. Barker introduces the Obama administration’s foreign policy team with a stylized presentation that makes them seem like the world’s nerdiest Justice League. When President Obama appeared on the screen the audience here clapped, and at the end they did it again. This never happens at press and industry screenings, as they’re called, where journalists typically refrain from any visible reaction to the films they’re watching. Politics and the 2016 election are clearly still on people’s minds. Even The Gospel According to André opened and closed with scenes from the 2016 campaign and election aftermath.

Barker ends on a hopeful note, echoing the tone that Obama always tried to take. Rhodes, who was speechless after the 2016 presidential election, has had time to collect himself. And he falls back on all the soft power diplomacy that Obama conducted, recalling all the bright, young people Obama met who will, decades later, likely become leaders of their respective countries. Rhodes seems to be trying to reassure us, and himself.

“I think the pendulum will swing back, and I think we have the template for when that happens,” he says.

Barker cuts to Power. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she says.

At the end of the film, there was quite a bit of sniffling. Tony Gittens, the director of Filmfest DC, reached across a chair in the dark and took my hand. The Final Year had triggered a state of mournfulness, and the two of us walked down the stairs and out of the theater, hand in hand.

Neighborhood hopping

Film festival life can be harried. You’re hopping from event to event for roughly 12 hours a day, which means you’re mostly confined to the neighborhood where the festival is taking place. The pace has its benefits — the single pair of pants I brought are now too big. Mostly, you’re running on coffee and grabbing a bite when you can remember to do it.

TIFF is based in Toronto’s entertainment district, which is filled with restaurants, theaters and sports arenas. It’s home to Ripley’s Aquarium and the CN Tower, the most recognizable building in the Toronto skyline. There’s a distinct mix of people, including Blue Jays fans; locals who are annoyed because their daily routine has been upended by street closures; and festival attendees, who are easy to pick out because most of us are wearing branded lanyards or bags. There are artsy types with blue or pink hair, lots of oxford shoes and tons of motorcycle jackets.

Celebrities such as Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie show up to promote their films, but they stay hidden away until it’s time to go to work. But I did run into Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, on the sidewalk today. He’s here to present his sequel, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!

On Friday evening, I decided to venture away from the entertainment district to the neighborhood of Harbord Village. Anyhow, I moseyed — OK, taxied — there on a feminist pilgrimage of sorts to Good For Her, a toy shop that has sponsored Tristan Taormino’s Feminist Porn Conference, which also takes place in Toronto. Harbord Village is an eclectic, charming ’hood that reminds me of Little Five Points in Atlanta, filled with little shops, restaurants and yoga studios.

On my way back, I walked through Chinatown, which was comparatively younger and browner. I was surprised to spot a Popeyes chicken place, along with marijuana dispensaries (cash only) and an array of tattoo and piercing salons, which, rather strangely, closed at 8 p.m. Fine. No septum ring for me this trip.