Director Dee Rees Talks ‘Mudbound,’ Whiteness As Currency & Her Filmmaking Process
Originally published on Okayplayer November 2017
Dee Rees’ highly anticipated Netflix project, Mudbound, has her name on everyone’s radar.
Mudbound, Dee Rees’ epic film set in post-World War II Mississippi, is about many things. It is about two families who struggle for survival—the McAllans, who are white and own a tenant farm, and the Jacksons, who are black and work the land the McAllans own.
It is about the exploration of “whiteness as currency and how it is spent,” as Rees puts it. It is about how husbands and wives, fathers and sons, black women and white women, black men and white men, white men and black women negotiate power. It is about war, both at home and abroad. It is about the lingering trauma from those conflicts.
But the other, subtler thread throughout the film is about how love sustains a family and a community. And not the notion of love that has been twisted into saccharine, largely empty gestures that has been commodified, but the notion of love as an act of resistance; the kind of love that has sustained black people in America during some of our worst and most trying times.
It is a timely reminder as we hear dog-whistle catchphrases from the current president and his administration, as we watch history repeat itself to nauseating effect in Sanford, Florida; Cleveland; Chicago; Ferguson; Baltimore, New York, Minneapolis, Oakland, and Charlottesville.
With stirring performances by a strong ensemble cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, and Rob Morgan; intimate, hand-held cinematography by Rachel Morrison; and a haunting score that combines gospel vocals with classical music elements by Tamar-kali, Rees brings us fully into this world and into these characters’ lives.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Dee Rees by phone where she talked more about the highly anticipated film and her filmmaking process.
Okayplayer: Thank you for making this film. I really feel like watching this film gave me a much better understanding of what my grandparents went through. It helped me connect a lot of dots.
Dee Rees: I’m glad [to hear that]. It really pushed me to interrogate my own personal history too. My grandmother was from a town called Ferriday, Louisiana. In 1925, she told me about her parents picking cotton and how she decided she was never going to do that and she wasn’t cleaning house either. Her whole thing was she wanted to be a stenographer. So that’s why I made Lilly Mae in the film an aspiring stenographer. It was considered a way in, y’know, and tied in with my own personal history. My grandma had written all these memoirs and this diary of her life. I got to really explore that. My grandfather had fought in World War II, so I didn’t really ask too many questions about his experience.
[Creating this film] made me understand how much I did not know. I just felt like I got to really honor them a certain way and bring this kind of multifaceted, interesting family to the big screen. I am just hoping that they have context and they have their own agency, and not just, y’know, they didn’t just come with the house. These characters have a life of their own. That was my goal in terms of working with the casting directors and telling the story.
OKP: Definitely. Something that really struck me was just the various ways that every character is negotiating with power because you have these negotiations between Hap (Rob Morgan) and Henry (Jason Clarke), and then there are negotiations between Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry, and then between Laura and Florence (Mary J. Blige). Could you speak to that a little bit more in detail, showing those different power dynamics between each character?
DR: Yeah, specifically I was interested in exploring whiteness as currency, you know? So, the McAllan family has it. It’s just the how they spend it right? So Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and his bluntness is in your face. He’s calling you “nigger” and he’s making Ronsel go through the back door. He’s flaunting it. Henry, it’s not that he’s any better. He may not be calling you “nigger,” but he’s also telling you to get up on your broken leg and go get the field done. Go get into debt.
There’s no allowance for your personal kind of situation and so Laura bargains with Florence. She has power over Florence that she realizes is more of a negotiation. So she bargains with her currency. At the end of the day she still has the position of power. Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), he tries to pretend he doesn’t have any and ignores it, which ends up being dangerous for Ronsel, because he has this thing where he’s endangering him. He doesn’t realize that’s putting this man’s life in danger.
So, it’s showing the viewer how each of the McAllan family has this currency and they’re spending it in different ways. It’s more of a gray area, but it’s not like it’s just Pappy that is the villain you know? In some ways they’re all participating in the system. They’re all equally responsible. I just really want to explore that kind of nuance in a way where most of the characters relate to each other and to the world at large.
The other reason why I wanted to do this was because it had these multiple voices and I wanted the chance to really get behind their eyes. So when we’re with Henry, we see the field as Henry sees it. We see this as commerce as opportunity. Or Hap, we see the field as Hap sees it and it’s like an utility. It’s a different inheritance, like no matter what he does, this land will never be his. Same with Laura. She sees this muddy nothing, where Henry sees beauty.
He sees potential. Each of the character’s views it a little differently. Even with the camera language, we really wanted to try to serve just that. We wanted to let each character tell their own story in a way and they’re each telling a truth. They’re telling their personal truth and we see how their lives kind of play off each other.
OKP: I really appreciated seeing that nuance there. Like how the “good whites” are still asserting their power and privilege over this black family. I really appreciated seeing that because I don’t ever really see that get interrogated that much.
It’s not that Laura wants Florence in her house. She wants her kitchen taken care of you know?
DR: Exactly. She’s no more initially evolved than like Henry or Pappy are. She’s just getting her kitchen taken care of and not realizing the danger that Florence is in when she’s there.
OKP: You give such a sense of these characters just being full and whole people even if you don’t see them on screen for that long. You still get a sense that everyone is a fully fleshed out human being. And to do that with this ensemble cast, I just thought that that was really that was just so remarkable.
DR: Thanks. I loved working with a big ensemble of performers. It really just speaks to the generosity of actors because when it comes to actors sometimes it’s like okay who’s the lead or whose story is it? I really wanted it to be everyone’s story and the risk in that is that it could end up being no one’s … I just wanted it to feel complete.
We wanted this to be the story about the battle at home versus the battle abroad so we’re more scared for Ronsel when he gets home than when he’s on the battlefield. Like that whole shot of him walking down the small town. We could assume that he’s behind enemy lines and that he might not get down this street. Just that whole idea where both he and Jamie don’t want to come home the moment the war is over. Each character has their own kind of skirmish. Each character is kind of fighting for their life in different ways.
OKP: Can you talk briefly about the relationship workshops you held and what that experience was like versus a “traditional” rehearsal process?
DR: Yes, so that’s something I’ve done since Pariah. Basically I like to work with actors one on one. I just like them to get to the core of each relationship. So I had Carey and Mary in my office. I had them doing repetition exercises back and forth to each other like “you have the power, no you have the power.” Each woman is giving it back to the other.
With Mary and Jason Mitchell, who plays Ronsel, I have them just giving it to each other back and forth. Mary would say, “You’re making a mistake,” and Ronsel would respond with, “No, no I’m not. I’m not making a mistake.”. You know, just that back and forth repetition where they have a chance to see each other and be seen.
I think being seen is the heart. The actors are able to look at each other in the eye and just kind of have a feeling, getting to the core of that relationship so when they get to the script they understand the subtext.
With Jonathan Banks who plays Pappy, Garrett Hedlund who played Jamie and Jason Clarke who played Henry — I had the three of them trading these fake memories or trying to get to say something nice about their sons. Say something kind to them. Tell them that you love them. It was hard for them to do. It’s the whole idea of getting the actors to talk to each other in character so that we understand what’s behind everything. I trust the actors to come prepared and know the work so when we’re on set, it’s all about the blocking. It’s all about the choreography.
I want the set to be a place of discovery where they’re still really listening to each other.
It’s not so much rote memorization where they’re phoning it in. I’m not behind a monitor. I’m not in the next room. I’m in the same room with a handheld. Really, we’re all in this together. If I’m giving Carey a note, Mary doesn’t need to hear. If I’m giving Mary a note, Jason doesn’t need to hear it. Generally, I try to only call them only by their character names on set. No one feels called out or on the spot. We’re all taking risks and we’re all in this together in a way.