Dee Rees: Exposing America
The screenwriter and director talks to Carrie Lyell about racism in America and her Oscar-tipped feature film Mudbound
Dee Rees is a busy woman. I’m sat in a fancy hotel room in central London, waiting for the screenwriter and director to finish her umpteenth interview of the day, hoping that my questions aren’t ones she’s already been asked. When she finishes with the call, and I’m ushered through to meet her, I’m expecting her to be grouchy, tired, standoffish. I’m her last interview before she jets off to Italy. But she’s none of those things. When she smiles, it’s warm and it’s kind. This is going to be a good one, I think to myself.
The 40-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee has quietly been smashing stereotypes in Hollywood since 2007, when her short film Pariah made rather large ripples at film festivals around the world. Bessie, which starred Queen Latifah, was also warmly received, picking up a handful of awards, including four Primetime Emmys. Now she’s set to turn those ripples into waves with Mudbound, an epic story of family, friendship, racial hatred and struggle set in the post-WWII South, and based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, which Netflix bought at Sundance for $12.5 million.
I watched the film a few days before the interview, and I’m still reeling. Few things shock me these days, I tell Rees, but this story did. “In Hillary’s book, there’s this great passage,” she says, leaning back casually in her chair. “Laura’s monologue about country violence. I wanted that in the script because that to me says everything about the everydayness of violence. The nonchalance of violence. I wanted to see a kid eating dirt. I wanted Laura chewing callouses off her hands. I wanted a dead mouse. I wanted a possum with ants crawling out of the eye sockets. That imagery lets you know that in this world, death comes easily. This whole world is a low-grade threat.”
It’s uncomfortable viewing at times, not least because of the graphic violence. Does she worry that it might be too much for some people? “People talk about things being ‘hard to watch’ and I hope they don’t trot out that excuse with this,” says Rees. “A Clockwork Orange is hard to watch. American History X is hard to watch. Into The Void is hard to watch. It’s a conveniently trotted out, selectively applied excuse that people use when they don’t want to face something. If we’re honest about the history of cinema, what’s hard to watch? This isn’t it. I hope people keep that perspective and don’t turn away. Lean into whatever discomfort. But beyond that, I don’t want to be didactic or preachy. Just enjoy the fucking film. I’m not ramming anything down your throat.”
Read the rest of our exclusive interview in the December issue of DIVA, available to buy in print or digitally here.
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