How ‘Mudbound’ Director Dee Rees Convinced Mary J. Blige To Join Her Cast
“Mudbound,” a sprawling, ambitious drama that debuted on Netflix and in select theaters last Friday, has earned its director, Dee Rees, a deserved crown.
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.