Rather than feeling victimized by a society that paints her as a pariah (pun intended), writer/director Dee Rees decided to manifest the images she wishes to see on both the big and small screens. For her, the journey was inspired by personal tragedies, triumphs and considerable sacrifice to bring her authentic visions into fruition.
A native of Nashville, Dee Rees took an unlikely path towards her present, esteemed place in the film world. After earning an MBA from Florida A&M she took on a marketing and brand position at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, followed by a similar job marketing Dr. Scholl’s products in NYC. “I went from panty liners to wart removers and bunion pads, which for me was an upgrade,” she jokingly told The Advocate. It was an experience at Dr. Scholl’s that opened her eyes to her greater destiny. Something within Rees stirred while taking part in a commercial shoot for shoe insoles. She eventually applied to NYU’s Graduate Film School to embark upon the fulfillment of a dream.
While at NYU, Rees, who cites Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as her influences, had the privilege of soaking up inspiration from another creative icon: Spike Lee. The up & coming director interned as script supervisor for 2 of Lee’s films, When The Levees Broke and Inside Man. As a matter of fact, it was on the set of Lee’s Inside Man in ’05 that the Nashville native penned the full-length feature of Pariah. Rees condensed the story by melding the first act and the ending of the original script to fashion a short film thesis for completion of study at the acclaimed film school. The powerful story follows Alike, a gay teen from Brooklyn struggling to assert her sexual identity on multiple fronts. As emotionally vivid as it is visual, Alike’s journey reflects Rees own painful struggle regarding sexual identity and family acceptance.
Rees’ abbreviated version of Pariah screened at over 40 festivals worldwide and won an Audience Award at the L.A. Film Festival in 2007. Rees was also named a 2008 Tribeca Institute/Renew Media Arts Fellow for her work as well as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 Faces of Independent Film” in 2008 – the same year she became a Sundance Screenwriting & Directing Lab Fellow.
A Black lesbian herself, the 34-year-old creative explained how personal experiences provided the foundation of Pariah: “Alike hasn’t been with anyone yet and hasn’t figured out where she fits on the spectrum of femme to butch, and she only sees extremes around her,” she said. Rees confessed that she felt rather out of place when she came out. “I’d go to lesbian parties. I felt like I wasn’t hard enough to be butch, but I wasn’t wearing heels and a skirt, I wasn’t femme, so I felt like I was sort of invisible,” she recounts. In her words, Pariah is a semiautobiographical in nature because “it took me a while to figure out who I was. Living in New York I was amazed to see young teen women unafraid to express their sexuality. I thought, if I had known who I was at 17, would I have had the courage to express it?”
The resistance Alike faced by her mom and dad also mirrors Rees’ dynamic with her own parents who she admits still haven’t quite come to terms with her sexuality. They were so opposed to accepting the truth that they went as far as flying from Nashville to NYC stage an intervention when she came out to them at the age of 27. “It was a hard struggle to get them to realize that nobody did anything wrong and there’s nothing wrong with me. And I’m still the same person that I was,” Rees said.
Despite having Spike Lee on board as Executive Producer, Dee Rees faced major obstacles in financing her semiautobiographical tale. “We knew that if we could just get the film done, that regardless of sexuality, race and identity, people would be able to see themselves in different parts of the story,” Rees told Colorlines. “We’d go to pitch meetings and the moment we said ‘black, lesbian, coming of age,’ they would turn around, validate our parking and hand us a bottle of water.” Dee Rees refused to give up and after much sacrifice – including selling her Brooklyn apartment – Pariah was completed and premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Rees’ feature length film has since received multiple awards and nominations including Sundance Film festival’s Excellence in Cinematography Award. Pariah is currently playing in multiple theaters around the country.
Pariah may have put Rees on the map, so to speak, but the film phenom has authored and directed a range of shorts in the initial stage of her brilliant career. In 2005, Rees completed Orange Bow, a 14-minute comedy following “the comically tedious journey of a Brooklyn teen to a neighborhood birthday party.” Eventual Salvation, which Rees also edited prior to making Pariah, follows her grandmother’s return to Liberia on to help rebuild a community following the country’s civil war. The documentary received a 2007 Sundance Documentary Fund Grant and premiered on the Sundance Channel in October 2009. The fall of ’09 was an exciting time for the visionary. It was the vary same season that her recent short film Colonial Gods aired on the BBC. The short chronicles a complex friendship between a Somali man and a Nigerian man, as they navigate through the chaos brought on by the gentrification of a small immigrant community of “Tiger Bay” in Cardiff, Wales.
Dee Rees has made a thrilling start to her career in as a writer and filmmaker. Her intrepid and stunningly authentic approach to story telling gains increasing recognition, changing the landscape for Black filmmakers and challenging an establishment that habitually projects an extremely limited view of the Black experience.
Watch: Trailer of Dee Rees’ Pariah