All Articles Tagged "Dee Rees"
The four-time Emmy-award winning HBO film Bessie, directed by Dee Rees, depicts the life and times of songstress Bessie Smith, a.k.a., the Empress of the Blues. Starring Queen Latifah as the openly bisexual, Chattanooga music legend who rose to prominence in the 1920s, Mo’Nique as fellow performer, mentor and friend Ma Rainey, Tika Sumpter as Smith’s girlfriend Lucille, and Michael K. Williams as Jack Dee, Smith’s first husband, the film is replete with great performances, visuals and overall storytelling. And it’s no wonder, considering that Bessie was also co-written by Dee Rees, who wrote and directed Pariah. If you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favor and check it out ASAP. And in the meantime, read on for secrets behind the making of Bessie.
Writer and director Dee Rees made her feature film debut, Pariah, in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Pariah is a coming-of-age film that chronicles the story of Alike, a 17-year-old lesbian discovering how to be. It features a breakout performance by actress Adepero Oduye, who is supported by a rich cast, including Aasha Davis, Pernell Walker, Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans. After its Sundance debut, the film, which was executive produced by Spike Lee, was acquired by Focus Features. Authentic, beautiful, stirring. We can’t say enough great things about Pariah. Read on to learn some secrets behind the making of the film.
We’ve been talking about this movie for months now. And tomorrow, you’ll finally be able to watch the story of legendary Blues singer Bessie Smith unfold. As someone who’s seen the film, I can tell you you’re in for a treat. Not only is it visually impeccable, the story and the performances are rich.
In anticipation of the television premiere of Bessie, we spoke to screenwriter and director for the project, Dee Rees, about how she approached the writing and directing of this piece and why it was so important for her to tell Bessie Smith’s story.
Though Rees is generations removed from the era when Bessie Smith toured and performed. She still had access.
“Bessie is someone who I kind of grew up with,” Rees said.
“My grandmother played her records, my mom played her. There’s this album that they had called One Mo Time, that was recorded from a 1979 a Black Vaudeville kind of sendup. And so that was something I remembered as a kid. So I was always curious about her life. She was a woman from Tennessee, a Black woman, a queer woman from Tennessee, who wasn’t afraid to be who she was.”
So when the she was approached with the opportunity to tell her story back in 2012, Rees said she “really wanted to get behind her eyes and see her worldview.”
But the process of obtaining information to do so wasn’t an easy one. Bessie Smith was born in the late 1800’s and government records at that time, particularly for Black people, weren’t always accurate, if they were kept at all.
Because she was born so long ago–even her birthdate, there’s no consensus–so the first thing I did was go to the public library and pull every book that I could find. And also there’s a book called “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” by Angela Davis which is really, really great. It really conceptualizes Bessie. So I relied on that as my main text. I just did research. Even with the census records, there are three birth dates. Everything about this woman is in the gray area.
And while there wasn’t an abundance of information, Rees wanted to make sure the information she noted and eventually included in the film came from the primary source.
“I was careful to try to reconstruct her persona based on her voice versus what other people said about her,” Rees said. “So I would go to song lyrics, the songs that she herself wrote, not the songs others wrote for her and try to understand her personality, what she was interested in, what she was worried about. Because I think that the best way to know an artist is through their work. I started through her art to understand what was in her psyche.”
What she found and what was very prevalent in the movie was that Bessie Smith was very socially conscious and particularly concerned about the plight of Black people in this country. It was evidenced in Smith’s song lyrics.
“After a huge flood, she wrote one of her biggest hits, “Backwater Blues”. And she wrote that about the people who had been displaced. She was concerned the social ills of the time. She has a line that wasn’t in her recorded performance but one of her lines was “All my life I been making it, all my life White folks been taking it.” She was politically conscious. You know the Blues was an early form of social protest. She was very much interested in women’s empowerment even though her lyrics are misconstrued or over simplistically interpreted as misogynistic or encouraging domestic violence, by saying these things, she was creating a forum for women to be able to discuss these things. For her to be creating her art and putting forth the image she wanted to put forth, she was radical.”
In addition to her art, Bessie Smith was also herself when it came to her romantic life. She was in her prime at the turn of the century and during the “Roaring Twenties,” when living fast, loud and loose was something like the norm. Bessie Smith, as well as her mentor Ma Rainey, were very open with their sexualities. And while other historical accounts may gloss over this fact or speak about it briefly, it was important to Rees that Smith’s sexuality play a prevalent role in the story.
“Look how much she contributed. To suppress it would not make any sense. We wanted to talk about it in a real way and not in a scandalized way. That’s who she was. She was bisexual in a very matter of fact way.”
And for those who might not have known her personally, she put her sexuality in her lyrics too. In her 1930’s song, “The Boy in the Boat,” Smith says, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties—have the lights down low—only those parties where women can go.”
But Bessie’s music was more than just an expression of sexuality, it was an expression of the times. And, in many ways, her music, and Blues music in general, with its penchant for boldly telling the truth about Black life, was able to penetrate mainstream consciousness. The commercial success of her albums and eventually the radio play she received, introduced Black music and subsequently Black issues to White audiences. Black music would eventually include the songs of the Civil Rights Movement, used not only to unite and inspire the Black community but to inform Whites.
That’s what Rees wants audiences to take away from the film. The Black community owes a great debt to artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Their willingness to speak and sing candidly about being Black and female, opened doors.
Rees said, “These women’s work laid the foundation for the Civil Right’s Movement.” She wants audiences to note and respect the significance of their artistry but also show that Bessie Smith, who was the highest Black entertainer of her day, didn’t have to sacrifice who she was to make money or make a difference.
You can watch Bessie tomorrow, May 16 on HBO at 8 pm.
Black women are continuing their reign in, on and behind the scenes in Hollywood. In addition to her hit shows on ABC, and coming off directing the new HBO biopic Bessie, Shonda Rhimes and Dee Rees will produce and direct a new television drama for the FX network.
According to Variety, the network is in the early stages of developing a historical drama series based on Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
For those who haven’t read it, or haven’t heard their friends gush about it, the book tells the story of 6 million African Americans moving from the south into the north and western regions of the country from 1915 to 1970. The story follows three characters in different decades. Wilkerson, who had already received a Pulitzer Prize for her work at The New York Times, also earned significant critical acclaim for the piece.
Presumably since this is a Rhimes production, FX is working with ABC Signature, the cable portion of ABC studios, where Shondaland is based.
Rees, the director also behind Pariah, will write the screen adaptation.
Having seen both Pariah and Bessie and being a fan of Shonda’s work, I feel confident that this piece of treasured literature, particularly in the African American community, will be in good hands with these two at the helm.
Have you read The Warmth of Other Suns? Are you excited about its screen adaptation?
We’ve already told you all how excited we are about the new HBO biopic Bessie, starring Queen Latifah in the lead role as the famed Blues singer and entertainer. And as we near the May 16 air date, more and more information about the cast and film keep popping up. And while we thought it was going to be good with the little information we’d been given earlier; now, we’re almost certain that this tv movie will be one to remember.
Not only has HBO released the trailer for the film, they’ve also included character spots from the very talented actors who will take part in the project including Tika Sumpter, who plays one of Bessie’s love interests, Michael Kenneth Williams, her overbearing husband Jack Gee, Khandi Alexander, her embittered older sister Viola and Mo’Nique, her mentor (and perhaps lover) Ma Rainey.
Meet the characters and the director Dee Rees on the following pages. Then watch the teaser for the film at the end.
Queen Latifah is doing just about everything these days. She’s producing TV shows and movies, hosting her own talk show, and now, she’s about to bring to life the story of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith.
According to Shadow and Act, the HBO movie will be directed by Dee Rees, the woman behind the 2011 movie Pariah (a very good independent movie by the way), and she will write the film as well. Latifah will star as Smith, and her production company Flavor Unit, as well as the Zanuck Company, Shelby Stone Productions, and HBO, will back the project. Production is slated to start in June and could reportedly take place in Atlanta.
The movie, which will be called Blue Goose Hollow, will tell the story of Smith’s life and reportedly “debunk many of the myths that have circulated about her” over the years.
Smith was born in Chatanooga, Tennessee in 1892 and went on to become the biggest blues singer in the ’20s and ’30s, known as The Empress of The Blues. Her career took a hit during the Great Depression, and as she was trying to make a comeback, she lost her life in 1937 due to severe injuries from a major car crash. This will be the first time Smith’s story will be brought to the big screen.
We’re really excited about this news. What about you?
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.
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I went to go see Pariah over the weekend and actually, I really enjoyed it.
The film, which was written and directed by Dee Rees (protégé of Spike Lee’s protégé’), is a coming of age story of Alike, a 17-year-old Black girl from Harlem coming to terms with her own sexual identity as a lesbian and must waver the waters between her conservative mother, played by Kim Wayans, and her contradictory father, played by Charles Parnell. The film has been getting lots of praise for highlighting the invisible voice of black female queers in the community; however, the intense and strained relationship between mother and daughter has such a universal theme, which makes it relatable to just about anyone, who once struggled in their youth.
Yet the awesomeness of Pariah has been pretty much been overshadowed by the hype over Red Tails. Despite the film, which centers on the plight and fight of the Tuskegee airmen, being well in the works for well over two decades, the hype around it didn’t start until recently, when folks began to spread the fear of God that if the film is not a box office success than all hope for the future of black films is doomed.
It all started when George Lucas, the Star Wars guy and creator and financier of Red Tails, appeared on The Daily Show to promote the film and started talking about racism in Hollywood. In a follow up interview, Lucas hinted that if Red Tails was a failure, it could have negative repercussions for black filmmakers: “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions],” he said. “I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.”
Oh great, more Tyler Perrys.
Interesting enough, Red Tails was created by the same guy who brought us Jar Jar Binks, the computer-animated character who appeared in the Star Wars prequels and which generated much controversy over its racially charged, Rastafarian mimicry. So why there is such a heavy emphasis on supporting Lucas’ Red Tails while genuine black films like Pariah are left to their own devices?
First off, I take issue with what is essentially has been a fear and race-based marketing campaign by Lucas to persuade moviegoers, particularly Black moviegoers, to see this film. We are told that if it would be the end of Black filmmaking as we know it. Never mind, if the film is interesting or compelling or even entertaining. We have a racial duty to unite to see this film or else we make Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weep?
And never mind that Hollywood has been operating with the same M.O. for decades and decades. The industry will not likely change even if the film magically breaks box office records, which it will probably not. Why? Well stories told from the black perceptive have always had trouble finding dedicated audiences outside of the community. Point blank, the mainstream is less inclined to see films featuring black actors. And if we are to go on the long rationalized reason that Hollywood is a business, than we can be certain that Red Tails, even if it is moderately successful, will not inspire the business to take a chance on us.
But of course, Black filmmakers have known this little secret, which Lucas appeared to just discover, for years. This might explain why Black filmmakers haven’t been waiting around for Hollywood to give the proverbial green light to make and finance their own films. They may not get the big audiences and big box office numbers as their mainstream counterparts but the lack of financial support from inside tinsel town isn’t stopping brothers and sisters from picking up cameras.
However, all may not be lost in the world of Black filmmaking if Red Tails tanks. As reported, Rees is currently working on a project for HBO that will feature actress Viola Davis and a thriller flick called “Bolo.” And on Sunday night, Pariah received a special shout-out at the Golden Globes by legendary film actress Meryl Streep. Likewise the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, also known as AFFRM, has been steadily pushing for the theatrical release of quality independent African-American films through simultaneous limited engagements in select cities including I Will Follow and Kinyarwanda. In short, the future of Black film – with or without the success of Red Tails – will survive.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort of Lucas to bring more Black films, or at the very least a black film funded by a white man, to the big screen, but if this flops, I think it is less likely that we can count on him bringing a sequel to the screen. And that is all. So folks can stop with the “must read” emails and Facebook invites for bus trips to the movie theater. There is no more of a moral obligation to see this flick as there would be for any other mainstream film, which lets us carry the lead.
Long gone are the days that we should have to feel a need to prove anything to Hollywood. If anything, it is the reverse. And if Hollywood is as racist as we all know it is why should we feel the need to let the decision of what images gets green-lighted continue to be placed in the hands of those, who don’t see us as human beings? I mean, the last time Hollywood took interest in the black market we got a bunch of one-dimensional Blaxiploitation and gangster flicks in both the 70s and in the 90s.
Instead let’s throw our support – and dollars – behind filmmakers, who continue to make conscious efforts to not only make films despite not having the blessings of mainstream Hollywood but make good films period.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.
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By now you’ve probably heard some of the hype behind the independent short turned feature film “Pariah.”(You might have even heard about it here.) Well, I, along with another Madame Noire editor, had a chance to see an advanced screening of this movie back in September. Even though we saw the film months ago, it’s a story that sticks with you. Shortly after the screening we had the opportunity to tape into one of the masterminds behind the film, director Dee Rees.
After seeing a group of what Rees describes as “out and proud” teenagers in Brooklyn, she started thinking about her own story and how she lacked confidence and self awareness when she first came out as a lesbian. This thought eventually turned into the subject for Rees’ senior thesis for NYU’s film school.
“Pariah” is a coming of age story for a black, lesbian teenager growing up in Brooklyn, New York. The lead character Alike, played by actress Adepero Oduye, deals with expressing her sexual identity, fighting to maintain a relationship with her mother Audrey, played by Kim Wayans, and finding herself as a woman.
Rees who has stated that the movie is largely autobiographical spoke with Madame Noire about what inspired the film, her own story and what she wants audiences to learn.
“Pariah” is already being considered a contender for an Oscar just a few days following its limited theater release, and the film was a large hit at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.
The largely autobiographical production from Dee Rees is, as the New York Times says, a “film made by a black lesbian about being a black lesbian.” It explores issues of identity, alienation, and sexuality among young black girls, while Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell also depict the struggle with denial and acceptance many parents go through–particularly African Americans–as they watch their child come into their sexuality.
What began as just a feature script in 2005 was expanded into a feature project with the support of several independent film studios and shot over 19 days in Brooklyn. Check out the trailer for the film and tell us what you think.
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.