With ‘Pariah’ and ‘Mudbound’ Dee Rees paves way for diverse storytelling

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Dee Rees was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1977. She began her higher education in business at Florida A&M University. Once she graduated from her undergraduate program, she had several jobs such as working as a salesperson, a vendor, and also marketing and brand management. During her time working at Dr Scholl’s, Rees was on the set of a commercial shoot, which is where she realized her enjoyment and passion for filmmaking. She then attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for graduate school for film and studied under the mentorship of her professor Spike Lee. A Sundance Screenwriting and Directing Lab Fellow, Rees worked on Lee’s films Inside Man (2006), and When the Levees Broke (2006) while also working on a script for the future Pariah feature film. 

She directed an adaptation of the first act of her script and made it into a short film, which played at 40 festivals worldwide, resulting in her winning several awards such as the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. She found it difficult to get funding for her film, which then took five years to finish developing and filming Pariah (which was described as semi-autobiographical). However, the original short film version is significantly different to the film we know today. The 2011 version of Pariah, her debut feature film, follows the journey and struggle of a black teen coming out as a lesbian to her friends and family. She managed to have her mentor Spike Lee to executive direct her feature film that premiered in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Pariah won 14 awards, such as the AAFCA Award for Best Independent Film, the BFCC Award for Best Director, along with many other awards and 29 nominations. This film’s budget was estimated to be around $450,000 and its box office numbers reached $769,552 overall. Rees received many positive reviews for this film, which springboarded her directing career. FF2 Media’s Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner said in her review, “With this award-winning feature now in theaters, let’s hope Rees’ career has a Spike Lee-like trajectory and she gets plenty of new opportunities to shine.” 

Rees directs Mary J. Blige in MUDBOUND (Credit: Netflix)

Lo and behold, Rees’ next film Bessie (2015), starring Queen Latifah, gained 23 awards, a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, and 45 nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television. Rees also received the Director’s Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television and Miniseries in 2016. It follows the legendary Bessie Smith, a blues performer, rising to fame throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. This TV movie also had many positive reviews, getting an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Rees’ following movie, possibly her most successful movie yet, was Mudbound (2017). The film was shot within 28 days in the summer of 2016 in New Orleans. Adapted from the novel written by Hillary Jordan, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) tries to raise her two children on a Mississippi Delta farm that her husband had bought. She struggles to adjust to the change in surroundings which was foreign to her. Mudbound was nominated for four Oscars, including the first ever female nominee for cinematography, Rachel Morrison, but missed out on Best Picture and Best Director. In FF2 Media’s review, Contributor Katharine Cutler explains why she thinks “the Oscars made a mistake” by excluding Rees.

The movie follows two families, one black and one white, covering a range of topics, from family struggle, shell shock from WWII, to racism. Its poignant scenes tugs at the audience’s heartstrings. Mudbound won 36 awards, including the EDA Award for Best Ensemble Cast and Courage in Filmmaking Award, and got 113 nominations, including the Oscars and the Golden Globes. 

Rees’ most recent film, The Last Thing He Wanted (2020), starring Anne Hathaway, debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. follows a story of a burnt-out journalist who’s losing the thread of her own life. Stuck under dangerous circumstances in foreign land, “Elena” struggles to find safety and people she can trust after she delivers a package her father begged her to deliver. My sister and I also had a discussion about this movie, which can be found here.

Along with Dee Rees being a film director, she has also guest-directed several television shows, including Empire, Electric Dreams, and When We Rise. Rees is known to focus on difficult topics, looking into the subject of identity, which is often about black culture and history due to her own heritage. 

We look forward to covering Rees’ work for years to come.

© Sophia Jin (5/1/20) FF2 Media

Dee Rees, Sarah Aubrey and Zazie Beetz attend the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Credit: FF2 Media VP Brigid Presecky)

Featured photo: Dee Rees directing (Photo credit: Laura T. Magruder)

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