At the Middleburg Film Festival in October, the director Dee Rees had tears in her eyes. Her movie “Mudbound” had just brought a packed ballroom to its feet and, even though she had been on tour for several weeks with the film — a sprawling historical drama about two families, one African American, one white, working a hardscrabble patch of land in the American South — she was clearly overcome. The film grapples with difficult material, including violence, racism and poverty that feel dispiritingly timely. But the Middleburg viewers not only didn’t flinch, they embraced it.
“This film was always about inheritance as a country, and who we are,” said Rees during a question-and-answer session after the screening. “If you want to get beyond the surface reading of race, just think about your inheritance. Not physically, but ideas. What has been unconsciously passed on to you, and what are you unconsciously passing down? Until we can look at our inheritance and be mindful about what we’re passing on, we’re never going to turn the corner.”
“Mudbound” went on to earn Middleburg’s Audience Award, one of several plaudits that is putting the film squarely in play during the run-up to Oscar season. Last weekend, the film received a Hollywood Film Award. Later this month, New York’s Gotham Awards will bestow a special jury prize for ensemble performance, a promising harbinger given that most Motion Picture Academy voters are actors.
When it comes to classical form and meaningful content, no film this season better embodies the term “Oscar movie” than “Mudbound,” which opens Nov. 17 in theaters and on Netflix. The film, which takes place in the wake of World War II, stars Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan as Henry and Laura McAllan, who move from Memphis to the Mississippi Delta to work on a farm Henry will inherit from his father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Their neighbors are Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), whose families have worked the same land for generations as sharecroppers. Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell play Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson, returning veterans whose shared trauma brings them into unlikely alliance despite Jim Crow-era racism.
“I wanted it to be an old-fashioned movie, like a movie that doesn’t get made anymore,” the 40-year-old director said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A voracious reader, Rees revisited William Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying” specifically for its interlocking narratives and voices. And she brought her personal history to bear on the project. Whereas Hillary Jordan’s novel and Virgil Williams’s original screenplay focused mostly on the McAllan family’s dreams and defeats, Rees conjured memories of her grandfathers, both veterans, and her maternal grandmother, whose parents worked the cotton fields on a farm in Louisiana.
“She would tell me stories about her and her little brother [riding] on her mother’s cotton sack,” Rees recalled, adding that she included a similar shot in the film. “I knew we had to have these little kids riding backwards on a cotton sack.” Her grandmother had also vowed to get as far away from the farm as she could. “My grandmother’s thing was, ‘I’m not going to pick cotton, I’m not going to chop it, I’m not going to clean anybody’s house, I’m gonna be a stenographer,’” Rees said. “So that’s why the little girl in the film wants to be a stenographer. It was important that the Jackson family have dreams, they have ideas. They didn’t just come with the land.”
In many ways, Rees’s journey reflects that same continuum of aspiration: She grew up in suburban Nashville as “a very closely watched kid,” who liked to write poems and short stories but wound up going to business school and pursuing a career in marketing “because I naively thought marketing was creative.” While working on commercials for panty liners and shoe inserts, she found herself gravitating toward sets where the director clearly held sway.
In 2005, she startled her parents, first by announcing that she was quitting corporate life to attend film school at New York University, then, six months later, coming out as a lesbian. Today she lives in Upstate New York with her partner, author Sarah Broom. “They really thought I was going mad or something,” she says of her parents with a dimpled smile. “But now they’re happy and they love Sarah, and they couldn’t be prouder.”
After leaving NYU, Rees made a 30-minute segment of a feature script she’d written called “Pariah,” the portrait of a teenage girl coming out in Brooklyn. With grants and credit cards, she managed to make the feature version, which premiered as the opening night film at Sundance in 2011. It became one of the most memorable debuts in recent Sundance history.
“Mudbound” producer Cassian Elwes recalls the moment vividly. “I felt like for every important emotional moment in that movie, the camera was in exactly the right place,” he says. “And from an acting point of view, there was not one bad moment. I believed everything that happened in that movie. The emotional impact was so forceful that it was clearly made by someone with a very sure hand. And fact that it was her first movie was incredible.”
Rees was hired to write a few projects after “Pariah” came out, including a pilot for Viola Davis, but nothing came to fruition until she made “Bessie,” an HBO film about blues singer Bessie Smith. When Elwes read Williams’s “Mudbound” script and signed on to produce, he immediately thought of Rees as a possible director. “I thought if I could get her to do this movie, it’s gonna turn out to be amazing, because she’s a genius.”
Although Elwes’s prediction has been vindicated, “Mudbound” did not enjoy a high-dollar bidding war when it premiered at Sundance in January. For whatever reason, distributors stayed away — perhaps leery of its period setting, because they were afraid of confronting race and class during the Trump era, or because they unfairly compared the film to Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which had a disastrous rollout a year earlier.
“I thought the film was going to sell within 45 minutes, I was just waiting for the phone to ring,” Rees would say later. “And it wasn’t that.” Netflix wound up buying the film for $12.5 million, and will play the movie in at least 10 theaters while making it available for streaming. The company has also enlisted top Oscar consultants in a campaign that will surely draw attention to Blige’s revelatory supporting performance, as well as Rees and other members of her cast and crew. As the praise mounts for a movie that has clearly found its moment, Elwes says, “Every single person on the other side of the [Sundance negotiating] fence is kicking themselves, because it’s one of the most important movies of the year.”
Rees praises Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, for buying “Mudbound” for what it was worth, when “he could have had it for a dollar.” And she’s excited by the thought of her film playing before a global audience virtually from the moment it comes out. To admirers who insist “Mudbound” should be seen in theaters to be appreciated, Rees counters that in this case accessibility outweighs formal purity. “You can read Tolstoy on a Kindle, you can read Tolstoy in a paperback, you can read it in a hardback,” she says. “It’s not going to change the fact that it’s literature. So ‘Mudbound’ on your TV doesn’t make it not cinema. This is cinema, full stop. I think the real conversation is a question for the studios: Why was everyone afraid of this film?”
It’s a question — predicated on Hollywood’s tendency to pigeonhole filmmakers and movies by race and gender — that raises several others: Why, after making such a distinguished debut in 2011, it took this long for Rees to make a second feature. Why, after “Pariah,” she was considered only for coming-of-age scripts rather than the diverse slate of projects offered to her white, straight, male cohorts. Why she continues to be grouped with such contemporaries as Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins and Justin Simien, even though, as she notes, “we're very different filmmakers and we shouldn’t be named in the same sentence.”
During a fireside chat after the Middleburg screening, Rees elaborated. “I want the work to speak the loudest,” she said. “Love the work, and then be excited about the maker.” As for the work she wants to make, it’s not likely that audiences will have to wait six years to see her next film: Rees just announced plans to make “An Uncivil War,” a drama about the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment starring Carey Mulligan as Gloria Steinem; she’s also adapting the Joan Didion novel “The Last Thing He Wanted,” and she and Broom are collaborating on a “black lesbian horror film set in the mountains” for Blumhouse.
If there’s a connective thread, she says, it’s her abiding interest in unreliable narrators, cognitive dissonance, and making the internal external. She once again finds herself gravitating toward her favorite authors for inspiration: Didion, Alice Munro, David Foster Wallace, Louise Erdrich.
“I just like things with interesting characters,” Rees explains. “It can’t be about the plot. The plot is secondary to me. I just want it to feel authentic. I want to make films that move at the speed of life.”