Dee Rees: “Mudbound”

Dee Rees did not always want to be a filmmaker. Rather, she happened into filmmaking after getting her MBA at Florida A&M University. It wasn’t until years later that she found herself at a commercial shoot for Dr. Scholls, and liking the experience, she decided to apply to film school.

Rees eventually got accepted to Tisch School of the Arts’ Graduate Film & TV program, in which she impressed professor and alumnus Spike Lee. She interned for Lee on his 2006 film “Inside Man” and subsequent television feature “When the Levees Broke.”

Lee then endorsed her for a Sundance Screenwriting and Directing Fellowship in 2008 and produced her first narrative feature — which she wrote and directed — “Pariah” in 2011.

And then, of course, Rees “happened,” or so the narrative goes, upon the original script for her latest 2017 release “Mudbound.” With co-writer Virgil Williams, Rees has become the first black woman ever — and one of five queer women — nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay of the Hillary Jordan novel.

“Mudbound” also happened to be the highest bid film from last year’s Sundance festival — going for a whopping $12.5 million to Netflix — and not because it didn’t get other offers. Last year’s Oscar-winning distribution company for “Moonlight” A24 and Annapurna both put in bids. Put simply, if Rees wanted to go the awards’ route, she had the option, but a trophy doesn’t entice Rees, a black, queer woman who happened into filmmaking.

There’s nothing about Rees or “Mudbound” that simply happened. The way we talk about female and minority visionaries like Rees is often in this mode of happening, unlike their white, male counterparts. Rees’ cinematic journey has been one that’s spanned almost two decades and is marked by hard work and determination. The circumstances of her race, gender and sexual orientation are ones that have undeniably marked her path in the white, male-dominated film industry.

And “Mudbound” is masterful. The praise Rees is getting — and that Rachel Morrison has received for her exquisite cinematography — is all incredibly well-deserved, and arguably inconsistent with the film’s high quality. The film, which tells the story of two families — one black, one white — struggling with poverty and race on a farm in the Mississippi Delta during the 1940s, is not a groundbreaking subject but is groundbreaking in its treatment.  

Rees’ nuanced direction allows all of her characters to shine independently and in context — of one another, of the time period. In one scene, the black son, Ronsel — a sergeant for the Allied forces in the war — is returning home from war; Rees has Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) sitting in the back of the bus but shows where the color lines begin. The cognitive dissonance that results — the emotional impact of the image which we can logically recognize as being true — spectacularly recreates a trauma that decades-removed viewers can comprehend.  This is just one of many examples that make “Mudbound,” and Rees’ work on the film, cinematic, as she justly argued it to be at the Spirit Awards. Rees’ additions like Hap’s monologue — and many of the other character’s — at the beginning of the film are deeply poetic and incredibly smart in highlighting more intimate sides of the characters that we would not get window to otherwise.

If you haven’t had the chance to see “Mudbound” or give Dee Rees the attention her work warrants, it’s high time that you do. Artists like Rees, who give everything to the work and expect only to impact their audiences’ perceptions and challenge their beliefs, are rarities.  Even rarer are women of color whose excellence stands so prominently against the white, male backdrop of cinema that even they can no longer ignore it.

Read more from Washington Square News’ “Awards” feature.

Email Natalie Whalen at [email protected]