Rees’ first movie, the 2011 coming-of-age jewel “Pariah,” was a festival hit that netted her an Independent Spirit Award and a small but devoted audience. She followed that with 2015′s “Bessie,” the Emmy-winning HBO movie about famed blues singer Bessie Smith. Both showcase a filmmaker with a sharp eye for the nuances of human connection, but “Mudbound” is in a class of its own, chronicling two families ― one black, one white ― on a dusty plantation in World War II–era Mississippi. Racial stratification plagues everyday existence on and off their farmstead, especially once the clans’ sons (played by Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) become friends. Rees, who adapted Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name with “ER” writer Virgil Williams, weaves numerous characters’ perspectives together to create a searing, audacious masterwork.
None of Netflix’s original releases have secured acting, directing or writing nominations from the Oscars, but the acclaim that has greeted “Mudbound” could help to end the streaming service’s dry spell. I talked to Rees in New York in October ― right as awards-season campaigns were first escalating ― about portraying the Jim Crow South, working with Mary J. Blige and the films she thinks are worthy of history classes.
“Mudbound” was among the toasts of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It felt very much like your moment in particular ― you were no longer just a director on the rise. Did you feel those good vibes, too?
So that’s exactly why I love doing press. My partner, Sheila, filters stuff to me, or friends will send me bits and pieces. But to me, I try to keep focused on the work and be sobered by the fact that it’s not a meritocracy, this world. If things happen, great. If they don’t, great. At the end of the day, I think, just as a maker, just as an artist, hopefully this makes my way a little bit easier. Or it makes the way of someone else a little bit easier. Or it it’ll make some film exec go watch shorts programs at festivals instead of going to the gala. To me, that would be the big thing ― for the studio system in general to do more interesting material. Go to shorts programs and find a voice there that you’re interested in and make their next film. It’s a reminder that discovery is the thing.
“Pariah” is a micro-budget indie movie that won incredible acclaim and found a second wind in streaming. Maybe the average moviegoer isn’t familiar with it, but in certain circles it’s a very big deal. Were the doors that opened to you after “Pariah” the ones you hoped would open?
I feel like they opened in that I never stopped working. Did the kind of doors open for me that would have happened if another maker made that film? Probably not. You know what I mean? But after “Pariah,” I never wasn’t working in film. Part of it was this deal for Focus Features. I wrote a script for them about a detective ― a Memphis cop ― that they didn’t produce because it wasn’t, you know, big enough. But I got a feature script, and then I got a job writing “Bessie.” It was this whole thing where someone was like, “Oh, wait, actually do you want to direct it? This is written so specifically.” It’s kind of like “Pariah” opened doors. I wrote a pilot for HBO for Viola Davis. It didn’t get produced, but I was always writing, so I was blessed in that, since January 2011, I’ve never stopped working. I’m kind of pushing along on my own. Lee Daniels gave me my first shot in TV.
Did you do an episode of “Empire”?
Yeah, in the second season. It was when it was still new. Lee, like, bullied me into the studio and was like, “Dee is doing this.” I feel like “Pariah” was a blessing. I feel like all of us from that film work. It launched Bradford Young as a DP.
That’s right. He got an Oscar nomination this year for “Arrival.”
Yeah! Exactly. And Adepero Oduye. So “Pariah” launched all of us, I think, in different ways. I’m grateful for the fact that I kept working, that I could build up street cred. It becomes this cumulative effect thing that happens.
Here we are talking on National Coming Out Day …
Yeah, but then the Mississippi religious freedom act goes into effect today, too.
That’s the way it works, I suppose. But with “Pariah,” you made a movie that’s like a warm blanket in its ability to speak to young queer people’s experiences. And now, with “Mudbound,” you’ve made something far more sweeping. It has a large ensemble, its topicality is grander. What does it mean to you to have given people movies that speak to their history?
I think I’m realizing now that, thematically, there are these ideas that I keep returning back to. Because for me, in many ways, “Mudbound” is about not being able to go back home. You have these soldiers who actually can’t go back home. They’ve been outside of this context, and they’ve seen the world, and they’re asked to step back into these family dynamics that don’t work for them. Also, I’m realizing that friendship is a theme — how friendship can shackle you or hurt you, in a way, because [Jamie, Hedlund’s character] and [Ronsel, Mitchell’s character] have this brotherhood that is unconsummated. This relationship is queer in that way — black and white guys aren’t supposed to be friends, so it’s subversive. Same with “Pariah.” They have this friendship where Alike feels limited by Laura’s idea of butchness or lesbianism or presenting masculinity. I feel like thematically there’s things I keep coming back to, maybe subconsciously.
Since “Pariah” didn’t crack $1 million at the box office, what do you hope for in terms of the legacy of “Mudbound”?
I just want to make films that last. I want “Mudbound” to last. In the same way that “Pariah” is still being discovered, I want “Mudbound” to be a film that, five years from now, is still being discovered. It’s not just a Kleenex film, where you watch it once and you’re done with it. That’s why I was glad Netflix got this film, because, for me, “Pariah” got picked up by Focus and got this small platform release ― it got kept alive because of Netflix. I was aware of that, so I had a different idea: When they got “Mudbound,” I was like, “OK, great, it’s going to be kept alive and be available.” It’ll have this simultaneous global audience, which is a different feeling. In terms of their support of the film, this is the most marketing support I’ve ever had for a film. It feels great to have them actively putting this film in front of audiences. The festival support has been amazing. It’s almost been like a reunion. All the festivals we’ve done so far are the festivals with the “Pariah” wins: Sundance, Toronto, London and then New York. In a weird way, it’s like six years later we’re making the same rounds again.
It’s just interesting for me as a filmmaker. A bigger budget can buy you more background. It can buy you more days ― which, in this case, it didn’t, really ― but it’s not going to buy you better performances. For me, the directing work is still in the performances. It’s still in the blocking, the composition. Money doesn’t buy you better frames, you know what I mean? I want to show that storytelling is storytelling. I’m always attracted to characters and relationships first, and then themes. Even though it happens to be topical, I’m never wanting to be polemic. I’m not preachy or didactic. I’m just going to tell you the story. If you’re into it, cool. To me, you can’t lead with the message because that’s a turn-off. Lead with characters that are interesting, and then people kind of won’t care what happens because they’re interested in people.
Let’s talk about Mary J. Blige, who disappears in the role of Florence. Many people have said they can’t believe it’s her.
Yeah, totally. Her manager, Shakim [Compere], also manages Queen Latifah, so I knew Shakim from “Bessie.” I called Shakim and said, “Hey, do you think there’s any way Mary would want to do this?” I had also gone to CAA, and in the first meeting I said, “I want Mary. Would she be willing?” For me, it was a long shot. It was a Hail Mary. But she said yes.
I just really wanted someone unexpected. I wanted someone for Florence who could have this very reserved exterior but have a very empathetic, alive, vulnerable inner life. With Mary’s music, if you’ve been to her concerts, it’s literally like a therapy session for thousands of people. She’s not just performing; she’s living it. Every verse, she’s reliving the heartbreak or she’s reliving the joy, and you feel it. I needed a character that can make people feel, and I knew she could bring it. She has a beautiful, tear-drop-shaped scar, and I wanted to use it, this perpetual tear. Actresses, especially with huge ones, it’s rare that they’ll will want to strip down. We do this very naturalistic makeup look on her: no lashes, no nails, no hair. Mary’s bold enough and brave enough to go there. Most actresses would be like, “Nope, I still need my wig.”
Was that part of your original pitch to Mary?
Yeah. Well, I kind of waited until a little bit later to say it to her. I remember the first day she walked into my office. I was a little bit starstruck, like, “Oh my god,” because she’s, like, Mary. She’s amazing. We just talked about it. I just wanted her to feel safe. I wanted to talk to her as an actress and let her feel comfortable in being able to be vulnerable and allow herself to be seen. She was amazing with that.
We did these little acting exercises. It was the same way with “Pariah,” in terms of the performances. I took these one-on-one pairings. I did Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan. We did repetition things. “Look at each other in the eyes.” For me, the core of that relationship was power, so I had them repeat it back and forth: “You have the power.” “No, you have the power.” That was a way to break the ice. It starts them looking at each other. They’re just holding eye contact, which I think is everything. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, then you start laughing. It’s just being seen and seeing another person. Just looking at each other is huge.
Same thing with Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell. I’d seen Jason in “Straight Outta Compton,” and I loved his performance as Eazy-E. I grew up listening to the bootleg tapes because my parents wouldn’t buy it because of the parental advisory. I thought I knew the story [of N.W.A.], but through him I realized I didn’t know the story at all. I didn’t understand who this person was at all, and the fact that he’d do that, in the scene where he’s in the hospital dying of AIDS and hugging this man and showing that male vulnerability. I knew he could be Ronsel, who’s very square and stony. He’s this solid guy who, at the end of the day, is very sensitive and seeing, in a way. Anyway, I had them stand with each other, Mary saying over and over again, “You’re making a mistake”; Jason saying, “No, I’m not.” It’s just letting the actors talk to each other in character off-script. That’s what I find interesting.
At what point did you do those exercises? On the set?
No, it’s in my office, in prep, during pre-production. That’s my idea of rehearsals. I think I did it over two days, these different pairings. We’d meet in my office and close the door — it was just me and the actors. I’m not drilling them on lines, I’m not rehearsing the words. I feel like if we can get the subtext of it, then I’m trusting you’re going to know the text. So, understand the subtext, and the text will almost be — not inconsequential, but you have to know why you’re there, and you have to really believe it and feel it. Everything else is informed by that.
People have said this movie should be taught in history classes.
Yeah, if that happens, I just don’t want this to be turned into a didactic thing.
Right. “Selma” got the same attention a couple of years ago, but that was a historical drama.
Right. I think hopefully the takeaway is that history doesn’t just happen to us. We’re creating it; we’re making it. We’re not passive — we are actors in our own story, so it’s just being aware of how we’re acting and the ideas we’ve inherited. It’s instructive maybe, but it’s not didactic in that way. Understand these relationships, maybe to the extent that it makes you ask, “Hey, what was my grandpa like, or how did he get what he got? How did my parents get what they got?”
Even if your parents came over from Italy with $2 in their pocket — if that’s your story, then why did we need to own slaves? But it’s like, OK, but if the narrative of coming over with $2 in your pocket is a noble narrative, then why can’t someone come from Belize with $2 in his pocket? If that’s a noble story, then use that knowledge to say, “Wait a minute, our ideas about immigration are flawed, because we all have this immigration story, which we brag about now.” We should be welcoming other people who are coming with $2 and a dream.
It’s that kind of interrogation of our own personal histories and how we came to have what we have and be where we are. It’s being mindful of what we’re maybe unconsciously passing on to others. I think inheritance is a more expansive way to talk about it. In history classes, this is not just to me, like, “This is a picture of Jim Crow South.” It’s meant to be about all those things about how we’re actors and we can’t just stand there and watch things.
If you were to devise a syllabus of movies taught in history courses, what would would be on it?
I like “Killer of Sheep,” by Charles Burnett, because even before [the filmmaking movement] Dogme 95, it’s a way of filmmaking that was raw and honest and feeling. It was about a way of life. I like “Midnight Cowboy,” just because I like it. It feels like it’s about New York and this kind of ingenue in a package you don’t expect. He’s this big, hulking hunk of a guy. It’s about naiveté and the city. I like “Network” because of how fast it moves, and the dialogue, just the feeling of it. What else do I love? I love “A Woman Under the Influence” by John Cassavetes, because, again, I love that style where I can never hear the lines and you don’t think of the script.
It’s those movies that I love, where you can just feel something in them and it’s not this down-your-throat thing. I was also going to say “Blood Simple” or “Raising Arizona,” even. It’s a goofy Coen brothers film, but it’s fun. It was the birth of Nicolas Cage, when movies used to launch people before they were stars. It’s how cinema can be about discovery — John Goodman and those guys. I watch a lot of stuff. People ask “what are your favorite films,” and the answer is, there’s so many. In terms of a syllabus, I would just choose films that show life that you haven’t seen, or different parts of life that you haven’t seen, or people we haven’t seen.
I love that, because the temptation might be to name a slew of biopics, adaptations of historical court cases, fact-based fodder.
Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, like, “Network” talks about the industry and the manufacturing of news ― the spectacle. They could release that today, and it would be like, “Oh my god, this is happening now.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.