Portrait of a Filmmaker: Dee Rees
By GIFF Intern Lorraine Rinaldi
A wonderful way to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is by watching films made by Black filmmakers, centered on Black stories. To that end, we would like to recommend the work of Academy Award nominated filmmaker Dee Rees. If you are not yet acquainted with her films, Rees is a phenomenal Black, lesbian director and screenwriter, with a rich and rewarding body of work that is racking up acclaim.
Dee Rees came of age in the 1980s in a predominantly white suburb of Nashville. Raised by her father, who was a police officer, and her mother, who was a scientist at Vanderbilt University, she was acquainted with racism as a child. Her family lived next door to a known Klan member and one of her neighbors used the confederate flag in lieu of curtains. Her childhood friend was permitted to play in Rees’s yard, but the girl’s family never returned the invitation. When she asked her friend why she was not allowed to attend the girl’s birthday party, her friend replied, plainly, “My parents don’t like black people.”
Rees received her master’s degree in business administration from Florida A&M University, graduating with a plan to work in advertising. However, on one of her first commercial shoots, she discovered her passion for film and followed that passion to New York University’s graduate film program. Rees was nervous at first, because her background was not in film like many of her fellow students, but found her confidence and her voice while working on a documentary assignment about her grandmother. She later made a semi-autobiographical short film titled Pariah as her final graduate thesis at NYU. The short film got accepted to Sundance labs, allowing her to turn it into a stunning independent feature film by the same name in 2011 and the rest is history.
We suggest starting your journey through her work with that beautiful and heart wrenching, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama Pariah (2011). Recipient of the 2012 NAACP Image Award, Pariah is an intense film about Alike, a Black teenage girl, coming to terms with her sexual identity as a lesbian. At the same time, Alike’s facing her parents’ crumbling marriage and struggling to navigate the stress of forming romantic relationships in high school as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. While Pariah shows the young woman’s struggles as a Black lesbian teenager, her successes and strengths are also highlighted. The film’s beautiful lighting scheme, realistic dialogue, and outstanding performances make for an unforgettable film. Pariah shares a perspective we are not usually privy to; and, in doing so, tells a truly powerful and authentic story.
Rees’s 2017 film Mudbound is timely and evocative. Starring Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan, the film is an intense historical epic about two southern families whose fates are inextricably bound together. Based on the book by Hillary Jordan, the film is gorgeously shot, dripping with poetry, drama and memorable characters. The film garnered Rees an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and Mary J. Blige a nod in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Rounding out her oeuvre, check out Rees’s Emmy winning biopic Bessie (2015), featuring none other than Queen Latifah as American blues singer Bessie Smith. Finally, her thriller The Last Thing He Wanted (2020), based on the Joan Didion book of the same title, premiered at Sundance last year and can be found streaming on Netflix. Rees is currently working on a futuristic, kid-friendly opera titled The Kyd’s Exquisite Follies, which tells the story of a Black androgynous musician trying to become famous.
We hope you enjoy her work and find it as powerful and inspiring as we do.
Wortham, Jenna. “Dee Rees and the Art of Surviving as a Black Female Director.” The New York Times Magazine, 6 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/magazine/dee-rees-black-female-director.html.
“Director Dee Rees Explores Racism In Post-War Mississippi In ‘Mudbound’” NPR Nov. 14, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/02/582641984/director-dee-rees-explores-racism-in-post-war-mississippi-in-mudbound