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Dee Rees On Working With Mary J. Blige And The Renaissance Of Black Storytellers In Film And TV: “It’s Ten At A Time”

Jessica Shapiro 

The Oscars are this Sunday, and one of the talented people of color we’ll be rooting for is Dee Rees. The writer and director is up for Best Adapted Screenplay for her film Mudbound, making her the first African-American woman to be nominated in the category. While speaking with her recently, I told the 41-year-old storyteller that I was sure she is going to win, to which she replied not an excited “I hope so!” but rather, a chill “We’ll see.” For Rees, it’s not about the accolades, but instead, the stories she gets to tell, and providing the opportunity for other talents to share their own. That’s why she’s teamed up with Walmart to create a short film for a series called “The Box” that will be featured during the Oscar’s telecast. The project will aid the Catalyze: the Women in Film Production Program that provides financial support for up-and-coming female filmmakers. And while she’s known for her dramas, Rees’s 60-second film is actually the only sci-fi story of the bunch. It will feature Mudbound star and Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige, as well as Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Claressa Shields — and a blue Walmart shipping box. The film will tell the tale of a space captain, a sand monster and an evil commander, again, all in the span of one minute.

We talked to Rees about that, the current renaissance of young Black storytellers in film and television, creating collaborative relationships with artists like Mary J. Blige, her hopes of venturing into sci-fi and horror next, and why she’s not committed to genres, only characters.

MadameNoire: So what initially drew you to this opportunity to do a short film for Walmart? 

Dee Rees: It was the fact that they’re going to support other women filmmakers as a result of the program. They’re going to give funding to four other filmmakers to make their own short films. That was the main reason to do it. And also, just the idea that I can make something original, it’s one minute and then I can bring back my favorite people and put them in it was a reason to do it. I wanted to work with Mary again and do something fun with her. Rachel [Morrison]’s my director of photography, I wanted to work with her. And Hannah Beachler who is the production designer for Black Panther, I wanted to bring her in. So it was a chance to play with some of my favorite artists, and then do something that would openly help other filmmakers get their first short films done.

There are a lot of actors and actresses who collaborate with specific directors and they become a team. You just did Mudbound with Mary and you already have her in your “The Box” film. Do you see yourself building that kind of go-to relationship for projects with her? 

Absolutely I want to work with her again! I’m trying to write and develop something for her. The same thing with Carey Mulligan. We’re doing another film together. I think when you find actors you love, you want to work with them again. Kim Wayans, there’s something I want to do with her. Adepero [Oduye], I haven’t had a part for her since, but all of the actors I’ve worked with I love and want to work with again. Even Rob Morgan who was in Mudbound was from Pariah. So I definitely like to work with artists over and over again.

Your Walmart short is a sci-fi story, and I know in the past you did some direction for the new Philip K. Dick show, Electric Dreams. Is that a genre you want to tap into next? 

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been trying to get into it for a while. A couple years back I did a Philip K. Dick adaptation of the novel Martian Time-Slip, I just couldn’t get it going. But I’ve been trying to do it for a while because I think you can do a lot with the genre and say a lot. And as a kid I grew up watching Star Trek [laughs]. It’s a fun space. It’s a very open space where anything is possible. I definitely want to get more into it. This short gave us the opportunity to write and direct something totally original and just really have fun. So my short is about the power of imagination. We meet this little girl and we kind of see, sort of like the breadth of her mind.

Courtesy of Dee Rees

The strength of people, particularly women, is a very important theme in a lot of your projects. Why is that so important to bring to light? 

I think a lot of artists and people generally who are kind of in it and who are on the daily grind might feel like alone or might feel isolated and don’t realize there are other people who are working as hard as they do. So it’s cool to have those characters represented because it’s a unifying thing to feel like, ok, it’s not just you who’s struggling. Everybody is going up against something. So I think to have that like avatar for your own kind of struggle is interesting, and I think, maybe empowering.

What kind of stories are you looking to tell next? I know you have a political drama in the works next called The Last Thing He Wanted, and you just said you want to do more sci-fi. 

That’s next. And then I’m doing Uncivil War with Carey Mulligan. And then I have a horror movie that me and my partner are writing. I’m not confined to any one genre. To me, it’s about characters. So if it’s the character I love, I’ll follow them anywhere. I’m drawn to relationships and characters. It doesn’t matter to me kind of like the sphere they’re in. It’s about who they are and do they have an interesting journey?

You’re the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but there have been a lot of firsts lately. The last few years has felt like a renaissance for Black storytellers in film and television. Do you feel that you’ve seen that shift and more opportunities?

I think the interesting thing about now is that it’s not just one at a time. It’s ten at a time. I think that’s what will make the difference. The fact that there’s like 10, 15 of us at a time will make it undeniable. And it will hopefully make it not just a fad and not just a moment. That’s what I hope for with Ryan and Black Panther killing the box office. To Wrinkle in Time coming out, to The Chi, to Atlanta, to Insecure. There’s all this amazing content and it’s actually excellent. So I think the many voices in one will help to turn the tide and keep it going. So that’s what I’m most excited about. That there can be many artists working in many different genres, many different styles, and that they can all be taken, you know? We’ll see. I hope so.

It hasn’t been an overnight success story for you. Pariah came out in 2011. What advice would you give to other aspiring storytellers as someone who has been on this journey and obtained success that we could all learn from?

I would say it’s really about building a little village of artists around yourself. Producers aren’t going to be looking for you. Agents aren’t going to be looking for you. But the thing you can attract is other artists. You can attract actors who love your words. You can attract photographers who love your vision. It’s about building a little village of other people. Attract musicians who get your voice. It’s about the biggest currency you can have is with other artists. Then you guys make something together and in making something, you kind of bring the focus to you. It’s almost like you have to make something that doesn’t require anyone to say “yes.” You do that with other artists. Invest in each other and you kind of pay each other back in labor and support. I think that’s the only way to kind of break in. Find an artist to grow up with, and you guys make stuff together.