‘Dee Rees Deserved Better This Awards Season,’ I Screamed Into the Void One Last Time
Our cinematic culture is one that prioritizes and respects auteurs, and for the most part, for many years, they’ve been white men. They’re Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson, and (infuriatingly) Woody Allen. They’re the people Kumail Nanjiani was talking about when he said this during that Time’s Up/#MeToo montage from the Oscars on Sunday:
“Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about white straight dudes. Now, straight white dudes can watch movies starring me and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.”
If you want to expand the accepted-auteur list, you can throw Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow in there, I think; Coppola has her own adoring fanbase and Bigelow is still the only woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, beating her ex-husband Cameron and Avatar in the process. And with the long-awaited changes in the industry, I think you can add people like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Patty Jenkins, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Bong Joon-ho, Asghar Farhadi, Zhang Yimou, and recent Best Picture and Best Director winner Guillermo del Toro to that list, too. These are people who have worked steadily from small pictures to blockbusters, always applying their distinctive style, and who have not yet lost their sense of passion and adoration for the form. These people get movies made, and they’re becoming household names much like Marty and Spielberg and Tarantino before them. And Dee Rees should be among them.
I am honestly tired of telling people to watch Mudbound. I’ve been doing it for months. I gushed about the film in an essay I wrote about Carey Mulligan’s performance and in our best films of 2017 picks; I’ve complained about the film’s lack of Best Director and Best Film Oscar nominations. When the film sold to Netflix out of Sundance last year for $12 million, it was a huge acquisition, and when it finally premiered on Netflix last fall, filmmaker Dee Rees and the movie’s cast went on a promotional tour around the country, speaking at audience events for the film and making themselves available to discuss their vision. I was invited to a screening at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, where in the Oprah Winfrey Theater we watched this film and then asked questions of a panel that included Rees and actors Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund, and Jason Mitchell. I’ve met and interviewed Rees before for her deeply personal, deeply moving film Pariah, and so I have an idea of how intelligent and poised and confident she is, but in that evening, she blew me away.
Her cast looked at her with deference and respect; when Morgan made a comment about working with the heavily female crew and how he enjoyed that one of the women had chai tea she gifted him, she gently ribbed him for flattening his experience with a female crew member to discussing how polite women are. She handled a dissenting audience member, who asked whether she “really” thought a black man and a white man could be friends in the deep South after World War II, with simultaneous patience and laser-sharp precision, dismantling his question in such a way that brushed aside his skepticism while staying loyal to her work. And when I was lucky enough to briefly speak with her after the film and ask her a question about the contrasting presentations of land in the movie, she smoothly veered us into an answer about how American cinema has treated wide-open spaces and how she and cinematographer Rachel Morrison collaborated to create shots that would demonstrate the white McAllan family’s view of their acres, which was both fetishized and domineering, and the black Jackson family’s view, which was one of toil and cherish.
Mudbound has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s not easy to find on Netflix — unlike other Netflix films Bright or Mute, I never received any autoplay ads for Mudbound as soon as I logged into my account. It played only a weekend or so in theaters in the Baltimore/D.C. area where I live, which is Netflix’s way of getting their movies in theaters to qualify for awards, but it certainly excluded audiences. I’m part of the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, and in our voting last year, it received some nominations because of strong support from myself and other members—nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Mitchell, Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige, Best Adapted Screenplay for Rees and co-writer Virgin Williams, Best Cinematography for Morrison, and Best Acting Ensemble—but it lost many of those awards, some to the problematic Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, and my frustration grew.
We in WAFCA awarded the film the Best Adapted Screenplay, but we know what happened Sunday night at the Oscars—it lost that award to James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name, and it lost the three others it was nominated for, too: no Best Original Song, no Best Cinematography, no Best Supporting Actress. Much like the other female-directed nominee Lady Bird, helmed by Greta Gerwig, Mudbound was shut out at this year’s Oscars. Aside from winners Frances McDormand and Allison Janney in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, respectively, nominated women and winning women were few and far between.
Was Rees, the first black women ever nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay category, even shown during the Oscars telecast? Did they pay attention to Mudbound, with its various historic nominations and its diverse cast and crew, at all? I of course saw Blige perform her nominated song, “Mighty River,” but otherwise only glimpsed her during a few crowd reaction shots. The same goes for Morrison, who was shown a few times. I never saw Morgan, Hedlund, or Jason Clarke. I only knew they attended because during the ABC red carpet coverage, the network was hyping up its slow-motion camera and briefly showed the three men posing for it as Rees ran toward them to join the picture, jumping into a bear hug with Morgan as Clarke and Hedlund lost their shit. Otherwise, I only heard Rees’s name mentioned once during that same coverage, at the limo-dropoff area, when IMDb correspondent Dave Karger announced the arrival of Rees and her wife Sarah Broom. By the way, they looked amazing, serving some of the best fashion of the night:
During a ceremony when the Academy kept trying to hype up its own inclusivity, their ignorance of Rees and what she represents for the future of filmmaking was infuriating. I learned more about Rees through her short film advertisement for Walmart, which aired during the Oscars, than during the actual event itself:
Don’t you want to see what this woman can do with a sci-fi project with a proper budget? Don’t you remember how Carey Mulligan said during the promotion of Mudbound that if Rees, with three critically acclaimed films under her belt, were a white man, she would be directing a Star Wars movie, like the opportunities handed to Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, and Colin Trevorrow? It was hard to disagree with Mulligan then and it’s even harder now.
I’ll leave you with Rees’s acceptance speech from this past weekend’s Independent Spirit Awards, where Mudbound won the Robert Altman Award, which goes to a film’s director, its cast, and its casting director. In these seven or so minutes, Rees is impassioned and electric, aiming barbs at anyone in the industry (like those who spoke with Vulture last week) who considers her Netflix film lesser-than simply because of how it was released:
“Mudbound is cinema … We know that this, or any other award, valuation, critique of any artistic work, is purely subjective, is not about the work itself, is not a meritocracy. Because nothing diminishes nor enhances the value of the work, except the work itself. That’s what we put on screen.”
The speech is lyrical and impactful, a celebration of her cast and crew members like Morrison, Williams, makeup artist Angie Well, costume designer Michael T. Boyd, art director David J. Bomba, and film editor Mako Kamitsuna. And this is the speech I wish I had heard at this year’s Oscars, and I really fucking hope it’s not the last we hear from Rees. She deserves more than we’ve given her.