Mudbound's Dee Rees interview on Mary J. Blige, racism and women in Hollywood

Jack Shepherd

Dee Rees’ Mudbound has turned heads around the world, garnering huge amounts of attention at various film festivals and earning Oscar buzz. Based on Hillary Jordan’s book, the story centres on two families – one white, one black – as they cope with relatives leaving for, and then returning from, the Second World War.

For Rees, the story was hugely personal, the director/co-writer borrowing stories from her own family’s past for the project. Sitting down with The Independent, she spoke candidly about family, racism, and women in Hollywood.

Was it a challenge to fit your own family stories into the movie?

For me, it was a shameless way to delve into my family history and add all those details. I wanted to bring forward from my grandmother's experience of living on a farm; to bring the idea that there is grace and luxury in the smallest things. A cool glass of water is a luxury because you realise the huge amounts of work that's required to get water into that glass. Coffee, sugar, sweets – all those things are luxuries. These people didn’t eat meat every day and I wanted the cast to look like they only eat 600 calories a day. They should look like they’ve never seen a fruit smoothy! I wanted it to be a pioneering story, almost like a Western, in that people are finding comforts in the small things. These people are stinking most of the time – how do you feel that? How do you create the feel of a lived-in place?

There’s a scene where one character gives their mother chocolate and she only nibbles the smallest bit. That scene was so tender.

That’s exactly it. That moment I wrote – which wasn’t in the script or the book – was something that shows these are luxurious items. This woman didn’t even want to eat the chocolate, she wanted to have one square and save the rest for the kids. There’s a deeper appreciation for the finer things.

It’s lovely how you took your grandparents stories and added them to the movie. When I was a child, I always thought my grandparents were the best storytellers.

It made me realise that, when I was a kid, I didn’t listen as close as I should have. My Grandma had written this diary which I was able to go back and reference. Now I only have the notes of those experiences. I never asked for the details. There was one story of my grandmother riding on a cotton sack, which inspired the shot of two kids riding on a cotton sack looking backwards. She decided she never wanted to touch cotton but wanted to be a stenographer, which is why in the film the little girl wants to be a stenographer. All those little things that made me realise how much I didn't ask or pay attention to. I’m just glad I had that diary.

How did you feel reading those stories?

It was amazing. Back then, it was clear that your family was your wealth; that a big family was required, just because of the labour of life. She wrote about how her grandmother was dying, and how the whole family was upset. It was interesting how much of a big deal someone being sick was. There were no antibiotics. Small things became big dramas, because the distance between places was much longer – technology hadn’t evolved. She moved to California and worked as a keypunch operator because of the war. The war was this big opportunity, a time to move and get new jobs.

Before watching the movie, I was going to ask why Mudbound was an important story to tell now. Watching the movie, the answer became obvious. That scene with the Ku Klux Klan, for example – now America has white supremacists openly roaming around. As the filmmaker, it must have been shocking seeing that scene become a reality?

I grew up in Nashville, in a white suburb. We lived next to a clan member. We didn’t see hoods, but my Dad knew that guy was a Grand Dragon. For instance, I used to play with their granddaughter. She could come to my house, but I could never go to their house. Another time, I remember she had a birthday party – we had been playing with each other all summer – and I assumed I would be invited to the party. I asked ‘What time am I coming over’ and she said ‘Oh, you can’t, my parents don’t like black people’. She said that straight out; it was common place. You would feel that tension. There wouldn’t be a torch outside, but there were areas you weren’t allowed to go. People have almost been lulled into complacency because there are no signs over the water fountains. But the signs have been in the policies. There’s still housing discrimination and wage discrimination. It’s still there, but it’s been made more insidious. These guys are wearing suits and ties now, not sheets. It’s weird to see them emboldened enough to come out wearing sheets again because that hurts their cause, that outs them and makes what’s always been there visible. In relation to the film – I heard some guys at a bar at Sundance. They were like ‘Mudbound was good but the Klan scene was over the top.’ Now, I wish I could find those two guys and say ‘You think that’s over the top now?!’ There’s a critical difference now, and people won’t think that’s over the top. For black Americans, though, they’ll know it has been there all the time. The difference now is that people can video things, making the problem seem less abstract. When people think about things abstractly, they turn around and say ‘They’re a crazy minority’. But after encounter after encounter being on film, where if you substituted the black guy for a white teenager they’re not going to get shot – that’s undeniable. And now there’s a wave of rebelliousness that’s finally happening but not because it’s new.

Hopefully, the movie will show people this has been happening this entire time and make a difference.

Hopefully! It’s about questioning your own inheritance, questioning your family. You cannot take on collective history but you can take on your personal one. If someone can go back and find a slave, someone else can go back and find a slave owner. The lines are not disconnected. There’s a line that runs between everyone and their ancestors and you cannot severe that. Maybe disassociate from those ideas but not how you are connected to them. But, you can realise how you’ve benefited and change how you raise your kids.

Another aspect of the movie that’s really interesting is your take on masculinity. For instance, with these brothers, you have them both questioning what makes a man.

There was a lot of male love in the story, in different ways. With Happy, the father figure, he just wants his sons to love him. But he shows that love in odd ways. Even between the brothers, Henry and Jamie, Henry has that salt-of-the-earth masculinity but, behind that, there’s this blustering person who wants to prove himself to his wife. Then there’s the love between Henry and Ronsel who are more brothers than Henry and Jamie. They’re the ones who left for war, and when they’re asked to come back they cannot function properly, even when they’re expected to. They find each other as broken men. For me, looking at the Great Migration [the movement of millions of African-Americans out of the rural South to the urban north and midwest], I always thought the ones who stayed South were weak and those who left were strong. But that’s not the case. It’s sometimes easier to leave everything behind. That’s what I saw with Florence [played by Mary J. Blige], it’s harder to stay at home. It’s not coming from a subversive state, but no, it’s like ‘F**k that, I’m staying here, I shouldn’t have to leave’.

Mary J. Blige is such an incredible casting. You’ve worked with musicians before, like Queen Latifah in Bessie.

That’s my thing, making musicians actors!

Why does that work?

In fairness, Queen Latifah was already cast as Bessie. But I do think that with musicians and comedians, it takes such bravery to go onto a stage and present yourself. For Pariah, people were surprised Kim Wayans was there, but comedians have a dark streak; they’re comedians for a reason. For musicians, there’s a need to perform, and if you get under that it’s interesting.

There’s a lot of discussion around diversity in Hollywood. One thing people often note is the lack of female directors. Does Hollywood feel like a boys club?

The thing I’ve learned is, it’s definitely about relationships. When I started, I didn’t know anyone. The disconnect comes when you’re naive and not able to be taken seriously. Like, when you’re in a cocktail room and people aren’t even considering you could be a filmmaker. They think you’re an actress or a hanger on – when you’re a writer or director but people don’t see you as possibly being one. The best you can hope for is you’re a novelty who they’re not going to look up. Honestly, though, I’ve been able to get this far because of a lot of men. Lee Daniels gave me my first shot at TV, saying ‘You’re going to come do an episode of Empire’. I couldn’t get anywhere near TV before then. He bullied me into the studio. The guys from HBO who gave me Bessie. Ironically, it hasn’t been women who have helped me out. It’s been gay men, white men, Italian men, men who have seen themselves in me, or their daughter. You have to find those unlikely champions who say ‘I know you’.

Mudbound is available to stream on Netflix now, and has a limited cinematic run. The BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series with Dee Rees takes place on 23 November

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