Filmmakers Spike Lee and Dee Rees Reunite at Their Old Stomping Grounds

Filmmakers Spike Lee and Dee Rees Reunite at Their Old Stomping Grounds
From TIME - November 9, 2017

Spike Lee and Dee Rees first met at New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts in 2005, where he is artistic director and she was a film student. Since then, Rees has become one of the most promising new voices in film with her debut, coming-of-age tale Pariah (2011), and Bessie (2015), an Emmy-winning TV movie about musical genius Bessie Smith. Lee, meanwhile, continued into a third decade of his prolific career with films like When the Levees Broke (2006) and Chi-Raq (2015). Now, in a reunion of sorts, both filmmakers have new projects debuting on Netflix. Rees buzzy drama Mudbound (Nov. 17) is an epic tale about the intersecting lives of two families, one black and one white, living on the same slice of Mississippi farmland in the 1940s. Lees new series, Shes Gotta Have It (Nov. 23), is a fresh, episodic take on his groundbreaking 1986 film of the same name. On a warm September afternoon, the pair returned to the school where they metand where Lee still teachesto discuss their new projects, how they met and what theyve learned from each other.

TIME: Do you remember when you first met each other?

Rees: Spike teaches master classes at NYU, and it was my second year. Everybody was scrambling to sign up for the class. Hell take on a couple students to be interns, and he was shooting Inside Man. At the end of the internship training period, there was a test: connect the film with the famous black director. I think I failed. But I got in anyway.

Lee: She was a hard worker. Thats one of the things that comes to me firsttalent levels, but also people who have a work ethic. Weve always had internships. Its a big thing when people who want to be filmmakers get to go on a big set to see how things run.

Rees: The biggest thing I learned was endurance. If youve never done a feature shoot, you dont realize its day after day after day. Getting up at 4 in the morning twice in a row is one thing, but three days in a rowits hard.

Spike, youve been teaching at NYU for almost 25 years.

Lee: I love teaching. My parents are teachers, my grandparents. Family tradition. I know sometimes it can be an extra little something where students can learn from people actually doing what theyre trying to do.

Between Mudbound and Miracle at St. Anna, both of you have made films that take place during World War II, a genre that has historically been pretty whitewashed. Do you ever feel compelled to tell a story in part as a corrective to the narrative?

Lee: It would take more than one film to correct that. The lack of representation of people of color, its not just World War II but Vietnam, World War I, the Spanish-American War, Iraq.

Rees: I thought about my grandfathers, because both went to war, and when they came back, they didnt get things they were promised. My maternal grandfather went to World War II. My paternal grandfather, whos from Tennessee, went to Korea. The one from Tennessee ended up a janitor at the electric company, and the one who went to World War II got a job as a mail carrier. These black soldiers went, and there were no parades when they came back. It was like, Get back on the back of the bus.

Dee, what drew you Mudbound?

Rees: The chance to tell both sides of the story. I wanted to make sure that the black family had an equal weight and we could see this kind of parasitic symbiosis, where theyre all stuck in the mud. I wanted them to have an inner life and not just be there in service of the [white] family.

Spike, of all your movies, what made you want to revisit this one?

Lee: It was my wifes idea. I said, Sounds like a good idea! When Tonya suggested it, there was nothing for me to deliberate.

Rees: I was struck by the fact that [the film] was black and white, and it was about this womans sexual liberation and how she was allowed to have this complicated life and not be judged. Shes choosing. Shes not chasing.

Lee: There was talk for a minute about making one episode black and white, but that was not a battle I was going to win. Also, this has to stand apart from what we shot in 1985, came out in 1986. The film was 86 minutes, so we had a lot more time in 10 episodes to explore who [the protagonist] Nola Darling is. In the film we just touch upon her being an artist. Now thats a major part. She is the struggling artist in gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who has to work four or five jobs and do her art.

Gentrification was a big theme in the movie.

Lee: In 1985, I dont remember hearing the word gentrification. My parents bought a brownstone in Fort Greene in 1968 for $40,000. Back then, realtors wouldnt even use the name Fort Greene. They would say Downtown vicinity. It was black and Puerto Rican. And then these idiot real estate brokers come in trying to change names. South Bronx is now SoBro. Theyre trying to change the name of Malcolm X Boulevard. Its horrible.


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