Director Dee Rees Explores Racism In Post-War Mississippi In 'Mudbound'

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 11:38 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, filmmaker Dee Rees, directed the new film "Mudbound," which is adapted from the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. It's about two families in the segregated Mississippi Delta just before, during and after World War II. The African-American family are poor sharecroppers. The white family owns their own land, but they're still struggling. Each family has a member who goes off to fight in the war. The white soldier returns emotionally devastated. The black soldier returns to find that although he helped liberate Europe, back home in Mississippi he has no rights. Here's a scene in which the returning black soldier Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell, is shopping in the general store. He's still in uniform, but when he leaves the store by the front door, he's confronted by a couple of white men played by Jason Clarke and Jonathan Banks, who speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")

JONATHAN BANKS: (As Pappy McAllan) You use the backdoor.

JASON CLARKE: (As Henry McAllan) Go on, son. Son, we don't want no trouble here. Go on. Go on.

JASON MITCHELL: (As Ronsel Jackson) You know what? You're absolutely right. When we was overseas, they didn't make us use the backdoor. General Patton put us on the front line. Yes, sir. And you know what we did? We kicked the hell out of Hitler and them Jerries while y'all at home safe and sound.

GROSS: "Mudbound" also stars Mary J. Blige as the black soldier's mother and Carey Mulligan as the sister-in-law of the white soldier. "Mudbound" premieres on Netflix and in movie theaters this Friday. Dee Rees also directed the HBO movie "Bessie" based on the life of Bessie Smith. Her 2011 movie "Pariah" is about a 17-year-old African-American girl coming out and dealing with the resulting complications in her life. Writing about Rees' new movie, "Mudbound," New York Times film critic AO Scott described it as unflinching and unsentimental in its dissection of white supremacy.

Dee Rees, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, some of the story about the kind of overt racism in Mississippi during and after the war, World War II, there's some really horrible things that happen in the film. Without giving anything away, did this film have a different meaning for you after Charlottesville? The film was probably completed by then, but, you know, the march in Charlottesville, that's the kind of, like, overt racism that people had, you know, more or less stopped expressing in marches, in big marches. And to see that was really just, like, shocking and horrifying to so many Americans.

DEE REES: Yeah. I think Charlottesville was shocking for some, but it wasn't for me or for my family, I mean, because I grew up in 1980s Nashville. I grew up next to a Klan member. Like, everyone knew he was a Klan member. My dad was a cop, you know, and I grew up three houses down from people who used Confederate flags as curtains. I remember one summer I played, like, with the granddaughter of this known Klan member. Like, all summer, we caught cicadas. And we had grown close, and so it was, like, time for her birthday party, and I said, oh, like, what time do I come for your party? And she's like, oh, no, you can't come to my house 'cause my parents don't like black people. So it was this thing where, you know, even though we're two kids playing all along, like, still, like, this thing is, like, stated and, like, stated, like, without a blink. And later that night, she came by with a piece of her birthday cake, I remember, to the backdoor. My mom was like, you can keep your cake.

So for me, these attitudes, these beliefs, aren't something that ever died down or ever went away or weren't visible. You know, I grew up being called nigger. Like, this is not new. And so I think the surprise kind of reveals the depths to which we've deluded ourselves, you know, and the depths to which we've kind of, like, denied kind of who we are as a country.

GROSS: So when you have a friend growing up whose father is a member of the Klan, is that something...

REES: Grandfather, yeah.

GROSS: Grandfather - is that something you can talk about with her, or was that something that was, like, off, you know, like, you could not actually bring that up and discuss it?

REES: Well, I would just say, like, oh, why can't I eat - so in terms of our play, like, she would always come to my backyard and play. So she could come to my house to play but never inside, like only in the yard. But I could never go even to her yard to play. And so it was, like, a known thing, and it was just kind of like, you know, my parents don't like black people said with, like, a straight face and with this kind of matter-of-factness. And so that's something that I think kind of sits with you and is one of the things that struck me in this story about this friendship because for the longest time I questioned friendship and what was possible and whether or not, like, you could be friends with someone who is white and that they would really be your friend, you know, throughout, you know, everything.

Or there'd be friends in school where you'd play in school, but if you saw them at the grocery store with their parents, they'd pretend like not to know you. And so, like, that was real. And so those kind of things I think sink into your psyche and kind of, like, draw these very real lines in, like, interactions and in relationships. And, you know, even when, like, no one's calling you a name, like, these experiences are the evidence.

GROSS: So you're directing this movie that's set in the Mississippi Delta, but you grew up in I think a suburb of Nashville. I - you've lived for many years in Brooklyn. So, you know, you're a city and suburb person largely, but now you really had to immerse yourself in country life to understand the characters and the setting of the film. There's a scene that's a voiceover about the violence of day-to-day country life.

And the Carey Mulligan character is stuck on this, like, dirt farm, and she used to live in a city, and she doesn't really want to be on this farm, but that's where her husband insisted on moving the family. And she's reflecting on the violence of country life, and this happens just after in the African-American family the father has had to shoot the mule because the mule was dying and is lame and can't, you know, it's the humane thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Laura McAllan) Violence is part and parcel of country life. You're forever being assailed by dead things - dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard. You smell them rotting under the house. And then there are the creatures you kill for food - chicken, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels; pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat, start again, kill. I learned how to stitch up a bleeding wound, load and fire a shotgun, reach into the womb of a heaving sow to deliver a breached piglet. My hands did these things, but I was never easy in my mind.

GROSS: So, Dee Rees, what did you have to do to get in that mindset of that kind of violence of country life?

REES: Yeah, so this passage was one of my favorite from Hillary's book because it set such a tone for the world, as you mentioned, like, the easiness of death is just, like, a speed of life. Like, I want the characters and the world to move with the speed of life. And I'm looking at the indifference of nature where, you know, it seems that nature is working against them, but in fact, it's just that nature is indifferent to them.

GROSS: I know one of your grandmothers, or maybe it was your great-grandmother, kept a journal. Tell me who it was and also if you were able to use anything from her to help you understand the characters you were writing about in the era you were writing about.

REES: Absolutely. So my grandmother's name is Earnestine Smith. She was born in 1925 in Ferriday, La., and she wrote this journal or this unpublished book about, you know, her life growing up. And so she wrote about her parents picking cotton, my great-grandmother, Famie. And so she would tell me stories about how she and her little brother, Clarence, would ride on the - her mother's cotton sack and how she herself, you know, vowed she would never pick cotton. She didn't want to chop cotton. She wouldn't work as a domestic worker. She wanted to be a stenographer.

And so that's something I absolutely put in the film visually and intellectually, you know, this shot of this little girl and this little boy kind of riding backwards on a cotton sack and also the character Lilly May, Florence's daughter, I made her want to be a stenographer whereas in the book she's a singer and she can sing. You know, I injected my kind of grandmother's history and transposed that onto her because it gives this little girl a different kind of interest. And so yeah...

GROSS: And one of the characters says to her black people don't become stenographers (laughter) and...

REES: Yeah. And then the father affirms her and says, well, you'll be the first, you know? And I feel like that that was an attitude that was, you know, that pervaded, like, in my family was, like, not about the thing that you could see necessarily. The idea that you could be something that you couldn't even was, like, a huge one.

GROSS: So with your grandmother, like, her grandparents would have been slaves, right?

REES: Exactly, yes, and there's pictures of them. So I have this picture of them, Emma and Bill, and the photograph I have of them is actually taken from a larger photo of a plantation of, like, a group of slaves, so every family stood in their family group and had this picture, and then everyone cut out the square that had their members in it. So the picture I have of them is, like, an excerpt from a larger picture, so it's just a square with just their faces in it.

GROSS: Not everybody has photographs or writing or anything that dates back that far, you know, like, several generations back. What does it mean to you to have that evidence of your family's past?

REES: It's invaluable to have it. Like, my grandmother's a very meticulous, you know, organized person, you know. And the fact that she, you know, even, you know, took the time to sit down and, like, not just write, but, like, type out her experiences - there's, like, anecdotes about going to the market truck or anecdotes about funerals or people being sick. And, like, there's some pages that's, like, biblical. It was, like, you know, it was, like, these begats or who had who and, you know, how they looked. And she gives, like, physical descriptions and demeanors. And it's amazing to have it, and it gives me a sense of connectedness. And it's amazing to look at the pages. It's one thing to hear a voice. It's one thing to have the story. It's another thing to have the actual, like, faces kind of looking back at you, and I definitely had those and relied upon those from "Mudbound" and shared them with department heads, you know. It's just, like, a visual reference because you can see the lives in these people's faces.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dee Rees. She co-wrote, and she directed the new film "Mudbound." She also wrote and directed the earlier film, "Pariah."

We're going to take a short break then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HEART THE TICKER'S "SLIGHTLY UNDER WATER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Dee Rees. She wrote and directed the film "Pariah." She directed the HBO movie "Bessie" about Bessie Smith. And she directed and co-wrote the new film "Mudbound."

So, you know, in the movie, family and home are not necessarily safe places. In the African-American family, it's not a safe place because of the location, because it's Mississippi and because, you know, there's so much racism. There are very strict limitations in terms of what they're allowed to do with their lives and what kind of relationships they're allowed to have, where they're allowed to go. And in the white family, the family isn't a safe place because, you know, the grandfather is really a monster. And in terms of Carey Mulligan's character, her husband - you know, he's the husband, so he's going to tell her what to do. And even though she's wiser than he is, she has to take orders from him. So, I mean, family and home are not safe.

It seems to be a theme for you because in "Pariah," you know, your earlier film, it's about a 17-year-old girl who's figuring out that she's a lesbian and is trying to figure out how - like, what does that mean? And who is she? And does she tell her parents? And if so, how does she tell them? And they're not going to be happy about it. And she's going to have to leave home to become who she is. So it seems to be a theme in your work. Was that a theme in your early life, that you had to leave home to become yourself?

REES: Yeah, I think for me as someone growing up, you know, in, like, Antioch, Tenn., I definitely felt the desire to, like - I definitely knew there was an elsewhere. I definitely knew that, like, if I were going to be free, I needed to be away from kind of, like, Nashville and kind of get out of the South and get out of the country. And even though, like, - well, like, when I first went to school, it was in Florida, I just knew that I didn't want to go to college in the same place I grew up. I knew that expansiveness was necessary. Like, I think, like as a teenager, I did a program. There's, like, this thing called the lead program in business because I was going to go into business so - and you could apply to which school you wanted to do this kind of, like, summer program at. And so I put down Columbia University as the place I wanted to go.

And so, you know, junior high, like, I had got to go to Columbia University and spent a summer there in New York City. And, like, I knew from that moment on, like, that New York City was a place where I could be. Like, New York City is a place you can be yourself completely. And, you know, as long as it's authentic - like it's kind of like no questions asked and so - there's definitely something I felt like as a teenager and wanted to get away. And I just think getting away from home is just helpful.

GROSS: So you said that when you made "Pariah," your film about the 17-year-old girl who's realizing that she's a lesbian, that you were imagining what would've been like had you come out earlier because you were in your 20s, I think, when you came out. What got you thinking about that? What it would've been like had you come out when you were 17?

REES: I think it was living in Brooklyn and seeing it, you know. So I came out. It was, like, my second year of film school. And so my parents were already freaked out that I'd quit my job and gone to film school. And then this double, like, you know, hit of like and also by the way I love women, so I think they thought I was having a nervous breakdown and tried to have a couple of like interventions. And so for me, it was - and I remember just feeling, like, such guilt, you know, feeling like I'd hurt my parents, feeling like I'd like, you know, I was, like, hurting them in some major way.

And I was a grown person. Like, I wasn't living, you know, under their roof. I was paying my own bills. And so I was surprised of the magnitude of guilt like that I felt and, like, just fear that I was doing the wrong thing. And so, you know, meanwhile I'm living in Brooklyn, I'm seeing teenagers who not only, like, know who they are but are actively being it. And I was just kind of amazed at their bravery, like, amazed that they were able to, like, do this, you know, in any small degree. And so I figured wow. You know, if I - you know, like, what would it have been like if I come out earlier?

GROSS: In the movie, the mother's Christian. That has a lot to do with why she's so upset that her daughter is a lesbian. Are your parents Christian? And did that have to do with their initial reaction to you coming out?

REES: They are, yeah. Yeah, which for me is the other thing I wanted to explore. Like, it's not these mutual exclusive things, like sexuality and spirituality because I would identify as a Christian, and I'm also a lesbian, you know. And so for my parents, it felt like a major exclusive thing. Like, oh, well you can't be a Christian if you're this way. You know, so they had this very kind of, like, finite idea of spirituality and belief. And that didn't ring true for me.

And so, like, I felt like - well, actually, like my grandmother, I remember, like, one Thanksgiving because I'd limited, like, my going home just to holidays. And so we're at Thanksgiving table. It's me, my mother and my grandmother. And so my grandmother, like, says the grace over the table and in her prayer she says you're perfect the way you are. There's not one thing I would change about you. And my mom said, oh, well, there's one thing. And my grandmother said, nope, there's not one thing I would change about you. And, like, that moment on I felt vindicated. Like, I almost cried. Like, I felt like she was telling me in that moment that she accepted me for who I am and that she loved me unconditionally.

And in that same way, it's like she kind of led my mom around. Like, my parents have come around where they love me unconditionally. And, you know, I understand they still might - I do think they still struggle. I think there's, like, not a spirituality. There's like a religiosity, you know, at least that tells them that I'm somehow in the wrong. And I think they probably have moments where that bothers them. But on the whole, you know, I feel loved. And I feel like that they are dealing with their own kind of beliefs about it.

GROSS: When you were 24, you changed your name from Denise to Dee.

REES: That's not true actually.

GROSS: That's not true?

REES: My name was never Denise. No, my name is Diandrea, and I never changed it. But Dee is my screen name.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Why do you prefer Dee?

REES: Just because it's a brand - right? - it's branding. So like, Dee is what my aunties always called me growing up. So it's like a thing that's always been with me. And for the purposes of filmmaking - like in the middle of film school, you know, instead of Diandrea Rees on the screen, Dee Rees. So it's like pithier. It's androgynous. And it's an easier handle to pick you up by. Like, I would probably get far less press coverage as Diandrea Rees than as Dee Rees. And like, when people can't pronounce something, they're less likely to engage with it. And so I feel like all my life I was teaching people how to say my name - how to say Diandrea.

And as I made the transition to being an artist and being a filmmaker, I looked at this history of artists that changed their names. And like, my grandmother had actually changed her name from, like, Auberstine (ph) to Earnestine. And so I kind of took it on as something that was available to me. Like, you can name yourself. Audre Lord took the Y off her name. So to me, it seemed like a noble thing that was possible and accessible and that I should, you know, shouldn't hesitate to do.

GROSS: So when you were starting your career in movies, you worked with Spike Lee on "When The Levees Broke," his documentary about New Orleans and Katrina. And you worked with him on "Inside Man." So what are some of the things you learned from working with him? I don't know exactly in what capacity you worked with him.

REES: I was an intern on both sets. So I was in his class at the time at NYU. I don't know. The thing that it allowed was like an access, I mean, like, comfort level in talking to crew and just to observe how to, like, you know, control a set and, like, how to just be - just to be on time and to be sharp and to be on top of the schedule. And so it was just a great experience because it was my first time being on, like, a studio set. You know, before then, I'd interned in people's offices, you know, getting coffee and making copies, you know, writing coverage, reading scripts. But that was my first time being able to intern - like be in physical production and to understand, like, the stamina.

I think that was one of things I learned, like, the stamina, like, that it takes - like, five days of getting up at 4 in the morning is one thing. But, like, 30 days of getting up at 4 in the morning requires this certain kind of strength and this kind of, like, mental strength. And you have to, like, cultivate that.

GROSS: Was it useful for you to be around Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, who starred in "Inside Man," to get to work with them as people as opposed to just seeing them as, like, famous people?

REES: Yeah, I think I still had, like, a healthy distance and just saw them as, like, artists. And so to me, it was great to just be within proximity of a working artist and to just look at the discipline, like, that it takes, you know. And, you know, I mean, and then going forward, you know, it gave me confidence on shadowing other sets. Like Seith Mann was a classmate who, you know, shot "The Wire" and shot a lot of TV. So I got to go and shadow Seith on his sets - and same with, like, Paris Barclay. Paris, who was the president of the DGA, invited me to shadow him on his "Sons Of Anarchy" set.

So it just kind of gave me, like, a feeling for, like, set demeanor, you know, and how to carry oneself. And so it was useful in that way. And then there was Lee Daniels who ultimately got me, like, my first job in TV, like, shooting on "Empire." And it was Len Amato and Michael Lombardo who got me, like, my first kind of TV feature, like, shooting "Bessie" for HBO. So, you know, over the time, like, I've had these kind of guys to look up to and, you know, who've kind of taken me along. And for me, like, that's why I wanted to hire a lot of women on this crew because for me it's been mostly men who've kind of helped me along. And so I wanted to be a woman who's helping other women along.

GROSS: Dee Rees, thank you so much for talking with us.

REES: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Dee Rees co-wrote and directed the new film "Mudbound," which opens in select theaters and starts streaming on Netflix Friday. After we take a short break, we'll hear from the Duffer Brothers who created the Netflix sci-fi horror series "Stranger Things." And Maureen Corrigan will review Louise Erdrich's new novel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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