A Modern Woman in Film: Dee Rees
Dee Rees made history in January 2018 as the first Black woman to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay Category with film Mudbound, and is also the director behind the acclaimed 2015 coming-of-age drama Pariah.
Her first narrative feature was which was widely hailed by critics and even more impressive when you add that her corresponding film school thesis short Pariah played at more than 40 festivals worldwide and honored with a nomination for the Sundance Short Grand Jury Prize.
After she graduated from high school in Nashville, Tennessee, Dee Rees went off to study marketing at Florida A&M. “I naively thought marketing was creative.” After graduating with an MBA, Rees worked at marketing gigs, variously selling panty-liners, wart-removers, and bunion pads until she eventually found a way to use her degree in a corporate role. It was during that period when she spent some time on the set for a Dr. Scholl’s commercial and discovered that she liked the process of creating visual content and so started to consider film school.
In 2005, she shocked her family when she announced that she was heading to grad school at NYU to study film. Six months later she shocked her family again when she came out as a lesbian. “My parents thought I was having a nervous breakdown. They really thought I was going mad.”
“But now they’re happy and they love Sarah, and they couldn’t be prouder,” Rees says about her parents.
Newly untethered in New York, she became somewhat of a protégée of Spike Lee’s while he was teaching at Tisch, interning for his films Inside Man and When the Levees Broke. It was during that time that she penned the 140-page first iteration of her script for Pariah, an experience she said was cathartic for her. For her graduation thesis, she whittled the story down to a short film that was incredibly successful. Even with the warm reception and her mentor Spike Lee as an executive producer, it still took Rees five years to find funding for the feature film version of Pariah. While Pariah was in development, Rees also directed a documentary about her grandmother’s time in Liberia.
Dee Rees’ fantastic work on Pariah garnered her a blind deal with Focus Features, but neither the feature she wrote about a lesbian detective nor the pilot she wrote about her hometown of Nashville wound up getting made. Rees moved on, writing and directing an HBO movie about Bessie Smith. Bessie was nominated for and won several Primetime Emmy Awards. Following up on Bessie, Rees was sought out to direct the adaptation Mudbound.
Mudbound became an astounding success, a huge hit commercially and critically. The film received a Best Picture nomination, with Rees received a groundbreaking Oscar nomination for writing while her cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, was nominated for cinematography. A few elements of Mudbound are taken from Rees’ own life. Lilly Mae’s aspiration to become a stenographer was inspired by Rees’ grandmother’s same ambition. The moment where Florence Jackson presses some coins into her son Ronsel’s hand was inspired by a memory from when Rees went off to college. “It really pushed me to interrogate my own personal history too.” This, in particular, is something Rees is known for: she combines her sharp observational skills with the ability to infuse research, empathy and sometimes her personal family history into her stories. Rees’ cultivated reputation for directing dramas with such wide-ranging and yet personal storytelling enabled her to be in an incredible position for her future projects.
Rees is currently developing an adaptation of the Joan Didion novel The Last Thing He Wanted for Netflix, (starring Anne Hathaway, Rosie Perez, Ben Affleck, and William Dafoe), and a drama titled An Uncivil War (starring Carey Mulligan as Gloria Steinem) about the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition, Rees and her partner, Sarah M. Broom, are also co-writing a horror film set in the mountains and featuring a black lesbian protagonist.