Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, Rees had a unique entry into the world of filmmaking, working in a range of different job roles before moving into the film industry. She launched her career after studying film at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, whose other alumni include Joel Coen, Chloe Zhao, and Martin Scorsese.
Image credits © The Hollywood Reporter
At Tisch, Dees was taught by legendary director Spike Lee, who acted as both her professor and personal mentor whilst she was studying. The two filmmakers became collaborators, as Rees later went on to work on the sets for two of Lee’s films: ‘Inside Man’ and ‘When the Levees Broke’. Speaking about Lee’s influence on her own work, Rees said:
Growing up, he [Spike Lee] was one of the first Black directors I became aware of, because he was so visible in front of the camera. On ‘Inside Man’, I was interning for the script supervisor, which was great because you’re right by the camera. From that I got a good sense of process, and having a good sense of family on set. The people on ‘Inside Man’ were people he had been working with for years and years. I’ve never been on a set with that many black people, that many brown people. I wanted to create a production family like he did.
During her time at film school, Rees began working on the script that would later become her debut feature film ‘Pariah’. Her graduate short film was the first act of the feature script, which Rees also directed. The short was released in 2007, and played at 40 film festivals, internationally, receiving huge praise and critical acclaim, as well as being honored with the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Image credits © KCRW
Despite this roaring success, it would take 5 years for the full feature version of ‘Pariah’ to be produced and released, with the help of Spike Lee who was brought on as executive producer. ‘Pariah’ is a stunningly shot story that centralises around the character 'Alike' (Adepero Oduye), a young woman who is in the process of understanding her sexual indentity. The film explores the complexities of sexuality, and the difficulties of teenage years in the modern world. Rees had this to say about the semi-autobiographical nature of the film:
Writing [‘Pariah’] was an expression of my own coming out. Getting it out there was willpower, a feeling that this is a universal story about identity and it has to be told. It’s not even about coming out, it’s about how to be. [Alike] loves women, that’s clear, it’s about how to be that. We didn’t make the film to prove anybody wrong or spite anybody, it’s just a story that needs to be told.
Image credits © IMDb
‘Pariah’ was internationally well received and critically acclaimed, receiving numerous accolades including the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Director. It is unique in giving a nuanced and authentic voice to the lived experience of Black lesbian women, and is one of the most significant queer films of the 21st century. To celebrate its 10 year anniversary, ‘Pariah’ was chosen to be released by The Criterion Collection in 2021, making Rees the first African American, as well as the first queer Black woman, to have a film in the renowned collection. Speaking about the cultural significance of her film’s inclusion in the collection, Rees said:
We have to widen the canon. There’s a blind spot in terms of the gatekeepers, of how we think about what’s important, what’s technique. Sometimes Black filmmakers, when we make something that’s great, there’s a feeling that you stumbled into it. Or they’re looking over our shoulder like ‘Who is the person really responsible for this thing?'
Image credits © The Independent
In the decade since 'Pariah’ was release, Rees has made three more features, including ‘Mudbound’, a film adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, which she wrote and directed. The film tells the story of two families, of different ethnicities, living in Mississippi in the 1940s, and stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke and Mary J. Blige. The film became the highest purchase at the 2017 Sundance film festival, as it was bought for $12.5 million by Netflix. It was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, which made Rees the first Black woman ever to be nominated for the award.
Image credits © Vanity Fair
Dee Rees’ fascinating career gets more exciting with every feature, and we’re on tenter hooks waiting to see what she’ll do next. Whatever is in store for Rees, we know that she’ll continue to set the film industry alight with her authentic, bold and impactful work. Join us next Wednesday as we continue to spotlight incredible women who have made lasting contributions to the film industry!