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Dee Rees, Geena Davis Tackle Female, Minority Inclusion on Screen

Director-writer Dee Rees, whose period piece “Mudbound” hits Netflix on Nov. 17, has had to fight for all of her projects to be made and financed.

Speaking at the Women in Entertainment Summit on Wednesday, Rees shared her journey to making her first films “Pariah” in 2011 to “Bessie” in 2015 to now, describing how along the way, she made sure to hire women and expand the pipeline of female and minority filmmakers.

“Pariah,” which began as a film-school thesis, screened as a short film in 2007 and later became a feature-length movie executive produced by Spike Lee. But the road from short film to feature was long and arduous.

“It was still a beast to get it financed,” Rees said. “Nobody wanted to do a lesbian coming-of-age back then.”

The film was semi-autobiographical, loosely based on Rees’ experience coming out as lesbian. The movie, which was received well critically, would be the springboard for her and her filmmaking team. “We all made our way off of ‘Pariah,’” she said.

Thursday’s Women in Entertainment Summit came at a moment when the industry is reeling and assessing how to move forward after being rocked by a still-growing list of sexual harassment and assault scandals.

Gretchen McCourt, co-founder of the summit, made brief mention of the current climate, but the program very quickly unfolded with no further thought to all the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Actress Geena Davis delivered the morning keynote, giving a rundown of the state of female and minority representation on screen. Founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, she shared the conclusions of her organization’s research.

“There are not only far fewer female characters, only 29% in films studied, you’re not seeing them or hearing them as much as male characters, either,” she said.

Using data and deliberate inclusive storytelling, Davis shared her own experience during the making of “Stuart Little” in 1999. In the filming of the boat-race scene, all of the kids holding remote controls to their boats were boys, which Davis noticed. She then proposed making half of the kids girls, which mortified the filmmaker who followed her advice.

“If you don’t put it in a script, it is not happening,” Davis said.

She remained upbeat that with data analysis and inclusive practices, the tide can turn for women and minorities. “Media can be the cure for the problem it’s creating,” Davis said. “I feel very confident in predicting that the percentage of female characters will change dramatically within the next 10 years.”

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