Dee Rees, the director of 2011’s Pariah, the biopic Bessie, and 2017's Mudbound, went from writing copy to being mentored by Spike Lee.
Rees, who is originally from a suburb of Nashville, earned her MBA and started working for Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati. “I thought that marketing was a way to be creative in business, but quickly learned all creative stuff happens at the ad agency,” Rees told Interview magazine. When she got laid off from her P&G job, she moved to New York and started working for a smaller firm on the Dr. Scholl’s account. “I was on a shoot for a shoe insole, and I liked being on set. I asked one of the ad guys how to get into something like this, and he said, “You have to go to film school.” And I was like, “Okay. So what film schools do I go to?” “Oh, NYU, but you won’t get in there.” Rees applied to NYU and got in, quitting her job to learn the craft of filmmaking.
While in school, she began developing and writing the screenplay for Pariah. Spike Lee became a mentor and de facto executive producer on the film. “He taught master classes and I would sign up for his office hours and he’d give me feedback on my script,” Rees said. Even though Rees initially wrote the screenplay as a feature-length project, she reworked it as a short film, and that version became her thesis film.
The project earned her entry into the 2008 Sundance Lab. “It was my first validation as an artist, and it was the first time I was able to focus exclusively on the work. It was a lesson in learning how to accept criticism and how to look objectively at material. Once your film is done, you can’t explain to people what something was supposed to be. You can’t give them footnotes. It all has to be there,” Rees said.
Even being part of Sundance Labs and later, Independent Film Labs, Rees and her producer, Nekisa Cooper struggled to raise funds for the film. “We were baffled at how hard it was, you know? Despite the laurels and despite the quotes and despite all the festivals the short had gone to, we really had to go [outside the industry] to private equity and find people who just believed in the story itself. And in terms of making it happen without compromising the aesthetics, Nekisa was able to wrangle different in-kind production deals from places like Kodak and Deluxe and other vendors who basically allowed us to make a multi-million-dollar film for a fraction of the budget,” Rees said.
Pariah opens with an amazing shot of a woman hanging upside down on a stripper pole, her body inked with bright neon body paint and bathed in the glow of a black light. Rees and her cinematographer Bradford Young use color to its fullest effect in the film, showing how the main character, is more of a chameleon at first, blending in with her surroundings, and then possessing an inner light of her own once she begins to finds herself.
Many critics were quick to call the project autobiographical, since Rees is also a lesbian like the main character in the film, but to Rees that’s where the similarities stopped. Rees was raised in Nashville, about as far from the film’s setting in New York as you can get, according to her.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is an African-American teenager growing up in New York, struggling to embrace her own identity and sexuality against the competing backdrops of her parents’ more conservative household, made up of a working class policeman father and a Christian mother and the gay club scene that is presented by her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who is butch and encourages Alike to be a “stud."
“The universal thing that I give these characters is this struggle to be comfortable in the world,” Rees explained. “[Alike] is at a point in her life when she loves women; that’s not the question. The question is how to be that? Her struggle is not in realizing who she is [for herself], but in gaining the awareness to tell her best friend and her mom, “That’s not who I am.” And to be who she is and not change herself to fit a perceived identity.”
There’s only one space where Alike feels like her true self: when she’s writing poetry. One of her teachers, Ms. Alvarado, encourages and pushes her in her writing. Alike is as surprised as anyone when she starts to build a friendship with the daughter of a friend of her mother’s, only to have the relationship become something neither of them expected.
Pariah explores not only a young woman’s coming of age story, but the differences in the African-American community. Some of these differences are obvious, as Alike’s mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), looks down on Laura, who dropped out of high school and hasn’t earned her GED. Other differences are simply eluded to, like Audrey’s desire to be part of the affluent African-American community, which her husband Arthur (Charles Parnell) accuses her of during an argument.
“I thought class was an important layer to add because it makes Alike’s story more interesting to know that Audrey’s discomfort with Laura is not just about her being gay, it’s that she feels the girl’s not of the same ilk as Alike. Laura doesn’t talk the same way Mika talks and Mika doesn’t talk the same way Bina talks. I thought it was interesting to give different voices to the characters, to show that black characters don’t all have the same voice,” Rees told Filmmaker Magazine.
Pariah premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival where it was picked up for distribution by Focus Features. The film was honored with many independent film awards, including the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards and Best Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards.
But after her lauded debut, Rees did not have another project until 2014’s Lifetime biopic, Bessie, which starred Queen Latifah as the soul singer Bessie Smith.
“I’m always choosing the hard things, the things that aren’t easy. When you choose the hard things it takes longer than you think to get it done, and if you choose the hard thing and have a very particular way you want to do them and are uncompromising in that, then sometimes it takes even longer. Hopefully this kind of demonstrates what I can do and I’ll get more leeway to build a body of work,” Rees said.
In 2017, Rees released her third film, Mudbound.
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Lauren C. Byrd is a freelance writer and blogger. After leaving Tennessee post-college, she has lived in Los Angeles, update New York, Queens, and Los Angeles again. She loves to talk about women in film, but also cares about good TV, documentaries, podcasts, true crime, journalism and social justice.