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Rees at Sundance Times Talk in 2012
February 7, 1977
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
New York University|
Florida A&M University
Diandrea "Dee" Rees (born February 7, 1977) is an American screenwriter and director. She is known for her feature films Pariah (2011), Bessie (2015), and Mudbound (2017). The latter was adapted from the 2008 novel by the same name by Hillary Jordan and earned Rees an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Rees was born in 1977 in Nashville, Tennessee. She attended local schools and college at Florida A&M University. After business school, Rees held an array of jobs, including working as a salesperson for panty-liners, a vendor for wart-remover and bunion pads, and also worked in marketing and brand management. While working for Dr. Scholl's, Rees worked on set for a commercial and she realized she enjoyed the creation of film content. This led her to pursue film school. For graduate school, she attended New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. While at New York University for film, Spike Lee was her professor and mentor. Dee Rees went on to work under Spike Lee on his films Inside Man (2006) and When the Levees Broke (2006). During this time, she worked on a script for what would later be the feature film Pariah. For her graduate thesis, she adapted the first act of the script and directed it as a short film of the same name. In 2007, the short played at 40 film festivals around the world, winning numerous accolades, including the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Rees' first full-length film was a documentary, Eventual Salvation (2009), aired on the Sundance Channel. The film follows her American-born, 80-year-old grandmother, Amma, as she returns to Monrovia, Liberia to rebuild her home and community. She had barely escaped a decade earlier from the devastating Liberian civil war.
Rees completed development and filming of her debut feature film, Pariah, which she has described as semi-autobiographical. In graduate school Rees interned for Spike Lee, whom she got to executive direct the film. It premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Rees was nominated for NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Writing, and won the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Director. Lisa Schwartzman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "In her fearless, world-here-I-am! debut Pariah, writer-director Dee Rees demonstrates, with simplicity and verve, that there's no substitute for authenticity". Pariah explores the complexities of religion, politics and socioeconomic class within and surrounding a Black family. The short film version of Pariah was initially a thesis project done by Dee Rees in film school. It was difficult to receive funding for the feature film, and the process took about five years to reach completion. The format and content changed significantly from the short film to the feature film. The transition from short film to feature film meant it needed to be more accessible for a wider audience in order to make money. This accessibility reached new audiences and sparked new conversations that were focused on blackness and sexuality in a new way. At the time Pariah (2011) was released, the film was one of the very few films that follow the journey of a young person of colour as they come to terms with their sexuality and come out to their friends and families.
Pariah has been compared to the written work of Audre Lorde, specifically Zami: a New Spelling of my name. Both forms provide a different take on the lived experiences of young Black lesbian women in a way that gives the characters depth and power. Both stories of identity, they are not only diversifying the characters audiences enjoy in media, but also providing an authentic expression of these lives.
It also won four Primetime Emmy Awards, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie. Rees was nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special.
Together with Virgil Williams, Rees wrote Mudbound, a period drama adapted from the 2008 novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. Rees also directed the film, starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Mary J. Blige. After being shown at Sundance in 2017, Mudbound became the highest purchase of the festival, being bought for $12.5 million by Netflix. Mudbound was shot in New Orleans over 28 days in the summer of 2016.The film shows a story tells the story of two families in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. The McAllan family is white and their neighbors, the Jacksons, are black. The Jacksons are sharecroppers who have a connection to the land, while the McAllans are a middle-class family that own a large plot of land in Mississippi. Mudbound tells a story of racism and race relations that continue to be played out today. The movie explores whiteness and the privilege associated with it, while comparing and contrasting the experiences of white and Black folk of the period. This work contains many personal connections for Rees, such as her grandfathers experiences in the army and her grandmother who aspired to be a stenographer, an ambition shared with one of the characters in the film. Rees used her grandmother’s journal to help guide her process. It contained family photographs of their slave ancestors, with the names of who fought in wars. Rees says that by using this it was a way of interrogating her own personal history. She used written text from the journal, a war ration book, and a photograph of her great grandmother, and each one was an inspiration for something in Mudbound.
Rees and Williams were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Mudbound, which made Rees the first black woman to be nominated for any Academy Award in a writing category, and the first black woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. As well, the nomination of Mary J. Blige for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Mudbound made Rees the first black woman to direct a film for which an actor or actress was nominated for an Academy Award.
A lesser-known project of Rees' includes the show Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, where Rees was given the chance to engage with the many emotions looming around the election of Donald Trump, and manipulate them within a sci-fi context, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Rees will next direct The Last Thing He Wanted, based upon the novel of the same name by Joan Didion, which will star Anne Hathaway and Willem Dafoe. and will be distributed by Netflix.
Rees is a lesbian, and she described Pariah as semi-autobiographical. On National Coming Out Day in 2011, in an interview with BlackEnterprise.com, Rees discussed her coming out experience. When she came out her parents weren’t accepting. They sent her emails, cards, letters and Bible verses. Rees sees Pariah as semi-autobiographical because she can relate to the main concepts of the film.
Rees, who is of African American descent, incorporates her family's history, specifically her own grandmother's, in her most recent film Mudbound where American violence and racism are more relevant to the lives of all citizens and a marker of each individual's identity.
|2007||Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival||Best Narrative Short||Pariah||Won|
|Iris Prize Festival||Iris Prize||Won|
|Los Angeles Film Festival||Audience Award – Best Short Film||Won|
|Palm Springs International ShortFest||Future Filmmaker Award||Won|
|Best Live Action Over 15 Minutes||Won|
|San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival||Audience Award – Best Short||Won|
|Urbanworld Film Festival||Best Narrative Short||Won|
|2008||Ashland Independent Film Festival||Best Student Film||Won|
|2011||Alliance of Women Film Journalists||Best Woman Director||Pariah||Nominated|
|Best Woman Screenwriter||Nominated|
|Black Film Critics Circle||Best Director||Won|
|Best Original Screenplay||Won|
|Black Reel Awards||Best Screenplay, Original or Adapted||Nominated|
|Gotham Awards||Breakthrough Director||Won|
|NAACP Image Awards||Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television)||Nominated|
|Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television)||Nominated|
|Independent Spirit Awards||Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award||Won|
|Sundance Film Festival||Grand Jury Prize||Nominated|
|Women Film Critics Circle Awards||Best Woman Storyteller||Nominated|
|2015||Primetime Emmy Awards||Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special||Bessie||Nominated|
|Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special||Nominated|
|2016||Directors Guild of America Awards||Outstanding Directing – Miniseries or TV Film||Won|
|2017||Academy Awards||Best Adapted Screenplay||Mudbound||Nominated|
|Alliance of Women Film Journalists||Best Woman Director||Nominated|
|Best Woman Screenwriter||Nominated|
|Austin Film Festival||Audience Award – Marquee Feature||Won|
|Chicago Film Critics Association||Best Adapted Screenplay||Nominated|
|Critics' Choice Movie Awards||Best Adapted Screeplay||Nominated|
|Georgia Film Critics Association||Best Adapted Screenplay||Nominated|
|Humanitas Prize||Feature – Drama||Pending|
|Independent Spirit Awards||Independent Spirit Robert Altman Award||Won|
|NAACP Image Awards||Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture||Nominated|
|Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture||Nominated|
|New York Film Critics Online||Best Director||Won|
|San Francisco Film Critics Circle||Best Adapted Screenplay||Nominated|
|San Diego Film Critics Society||Best Adapted Screenplay||Runner-up|
|Satellite Awards||Best Director||Nominated|
|St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association||Best Adapted Screenplay||Nominated|
|USC Scripter Awards||Best Screenplay||Nominated|
|Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association||Best Director||Nominated|
|Best Adapted Screenplay||Won|
|Women Film Critics Circle||Best Woman Storyteller||Nominated|
|Courage in Filmmaking||Won|
|Writers Guild of America Awards||Best Adapted Screenplay||Nominated|