Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Before fall break, The Daily Gazette sat down with Director Dee Rees before the screening of her award-winning film Pariah. The film stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, a young woman navigating the influences of her friends and family as she forms her identity. Rees also directed a feature-length documentary about her grandmother’s return to Liberia to help rebuild a community torn apart by civil war.
Below, Rees talks about coming out, filmmaking, and working with Director Spike Lee, who was the film’s executive producer.
MZ: You speak about the film’s universality, but what do you think it is that makes the film so unique and specific?
DR: The thing that makes it unique is intersections. So we’ve seen queer coming of age stories, and we’ve seen female coming of age stories and this is the intersection of female, queer, and African-American. People typically have to leave parts of themselves behind to fit in to whatever world, in this movie, you can bring all of yourself.
MZ: Yeah, I see.
DR: So it’s like you’re hanging with gay people, so you tone down your blackness. You’re hanging out with black people, so you tone down your gayness. This is a place where this woman has to deal with all of those things. And because it’s so specific we can believe it, invest in it. Hopefully that’s more the type of film that will be green-lighted.
MZ: I’ve heard you say that documentary can be a space in which to find your “unjudged voice,” and I know you did make a documentary, so I was wondering if you wanted to talk about the difference between the forms and how one has helped the other.
DR: In film school I had a hard first couple years. I would go to my evaluations and leave in tears and snot. [laughter]. I was making these horrible short films, and so the one thing that broke me out of it was doing this documentary [Eventual Salvation] about my grandmother. It allowed me to make a film outside of school. I didn’t have the gaze of the faculty, the gaze of my peers, and I wasn’t worried about what people were going to think about it. Documentary is interesting because there’s no script, you can’t tell people what to say, or how to be. You can’t have people really be honest with you about what their relationships really are. In documentary you have to use the camera to create relationships. And so that was something that I learned and could take to Pariah, you know, where you put the camera says how two people feel about each other. Getting my grandmother to sit in front of the camera was like, yeah, it’s hard. [laughter] She didn’t want to do it.
MZ: Nobody ever wants to do it.
DR: Yeah, so I’d have to catch her. She wouldn’t do it and she definitely wouldn’t spill out her emotional stream of consciousness, so I had to kind of create that emotion by where the camera was. Documentary helps you find character. You don’t want talking heads all the time, you want people to show you who they are through what they do.
MZ: So you went to a lot of industry meetings for Pariah and people were like, oh we don’t want this story…
DR: Yeah yeah.
MZ: And then that’s contrasted totally by the reviews. It’s obvious that the public appreciates these kinds of stories. I mean, I’m directly stealing this question from The Huffington Post [laughter] but they ask, if the public likes these kind of stories then why isn’t Hollywood eager to to sign on?
DR: Somebody put it to me this way, nothing bad can happen to these executives if they say no. If they say no, there’s no risk, there’s no embarrassing box office numbers, there’s no repercussions. But if they say yes to something they see as a risk, if it doesn’t make money, if the reviews don’t come, then they get fired. I think people project onto the audience their own hesitations, their own bigotry. They say, ‘I would do it. But if the audience isn’t ready for it, we’re not going to make this film.’ I just think it’s a case of people not giving the audience enough credit, because audiences are smart. They’re open-minded. They want different films. They want to explore different worlds.
MZ: You said that the film affected you in some unexpected ways, in terms of the reaction you got from people in your life. Would you care to talk about that?
DR: Yeah so when I first did the short film of Pariah (2007), I was in the process of coming out. And my parents at that time weren’t accepting; we were going through this process of not speaking to each other. When the short film was doing well, my mom was like, ‘well of course it is, because you’re doing the devil’s work.’ We went from that moment, to three years later, 2011, my mom coming to the New York premiere and saying this is a breakthrough film. This is a story that needs to be told. I never expected her to make that shift. I expected okay, you know what, they’ll be proud of me on general level, but this is a part of me that they’ll never accept. I think in some ways I wasn’t giving my parents enough credit. I think that I underestimated their potential for growth but I was glad they came around. You know, my mom is a Sunday school teacher and my dad is a cop, so if they can come around…[laughs]
MZ: Can you talk about responses others have had to the film?
DR: I avoid all of that. I really do.
MZ: Oh really?
DR: I’m sensitive, I don’t want to be in like, tears every night! [laughter] I’ve stayed away from the critical reviews, from the audience reactions. I really try to separate myself from that. It’s all subjective. With any art, guaranteed someone’s going to love it, guaranteed someone’s going to hate it. But Nekisa [Cooper] is the social media guru [and the film’s producer]. She’s more in tune to the sense of it.
MZ: I understand wanting to separate yourself from it. But because it is such a charged film, have you encountered people who want to put their own politics on it? Have you ever had a moment when you had to stop and say, no, that’s not what my film wanted to say?
DR: No really. The only thing is sometimes people describe Alike as butch, and I’m like, she’s not butch, that’s the whole point! [laughter] She doesn’t know, she’s in the middle. But as an artist you can’t control it when it’s in the world. All you can do is put it all up on the screen. One thing Spike [Lee] taught me is that you don’t get a chance to get up and explain. You can’t stand in the back of the theater the whole time doing a running commentary.
MZ: I know Spike Lee was involved informally and then came on as an executive producer. You guys had a working relationship for a while when you were at NYU. I want to know what that was like!
DR: [laughs] He was one of my professors, and he’s really great because he’s a working director. He teaches and has open office hours like any other professor. The thing I love about Spike is that he’s very honest and upfront, he’s not going to sugar coat it. He’s not going to dance around it. He’s also very humbling. I remember I had just done the screenwriting lab at Sundance. So I’m feeling kind of like…[laughter] special. And the first thing he does, he’s going to read a new draft of the script, is take a sharpie out. He went through the whole script and said ‘corny,’ ‘bad,’ ‘too long,’ ‘what does this mean?’ He makes you get your head out of your ass. You can’t have this esoteric bullshit film school answer.
MZ: I know you have three projects currently in the works, there’s an HBO thing, there’s a thriller, and then there’s a feature script. I don’t know how at liberty you are to talk about those things, but if there is one of them that you would be able to divulge a little bit about I would love that.
DR: So I’ll talk about the non-HBO thing. So it’s a crime thriller called Bolo. For me its a chance to go to back to the south, and to go to Tennessee specifically. It’s set in this community that’s been in decline. And it’s about a woman who lives there and is solving a crime, and also coming to terms with the fact that her community isn’t what it used to be.
MZ: That sounds awesome, I can’t wait to see that one. Well, it was so good talking to you.
DR: Thanks. I hope I answered everything. It was great talking to you too!