CALLING: Screenwriter and director
WHY WE’RE SALUTING HER:
Screenwriter and director Dee Rees is the mastermind behind several short films, as well as the critically acclaimed feature film Pariah, which was the first major movie to showcase homosexual black women in a non-stereotypical way on the big screen.
Rees, who was born in Nashville, TN, didn’t begin her career in the entertainment industry. In fact, after she received an MBA in Business Administration from Florida A&M University, she moved to Cincinnati to work for Proctor & Gamble where she marketed panty liners. When she was was laid off from that job, she moved to New York City to work for marketing firm Schering Plough, and during one of the commercial shoots for Dr. Scholls, Rees realized she was interested in film and enrolled in New York University’s graduate film program.
While at NYU, Rees met Spike Lee, who became her personal mentor, and she also worked as a script supervisor intern for two of his films, Inside Man and When the Levees Broke. Rees began working on the Pariah script while she was working on Inside Man in 2005 and shortened the full-length script into a short for her graduate thesis. In 2007, the short played at 40 festivals worldwide, winning 25 shorts awards including the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
In 2008, Spike Lee agreed to formalize his role with Pariah, serving as executive producer, but Rees had trouble pitching the film because investors believed it was too small and too specific. As Rees translated the rejection, “It was just code for too black and too gay.” So, realizing that she had to invest in her film in order for others to do so, Rees sold her own apartment and eventually found some investors. Pariah, which Rees said, “kind of transposed my own experience of coming out onto a 17-year-old girl,” was shot in 18 days and all interiors were shot at a single Brooklyn brownstone. At Sundance, it was acquired by Focus Features, and when the flick made it’s big screen debut in 2011, there was much talk about Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Although such honors were never realized, Pariah was widely regarded with several award nominations and wins from the African-American Film Critics Association, Black Reel Awards, and the Black Film Critics Circle.
For having the courage to tell her own story and shine light on the African American lesbian community, we salute Dee Rees.