Filmmaker Dee Rees made history on June 29 when her debut feature “Pariah” joined the Criterion Collection, making the Oscar and Emmy nominee the first Black American woman to have her work included. Before Rees, Euzhan Palcy, who is from Martinique, was the lone Black woman to have a film (1989’s “A Dry White Season”) selected.
“It feels like a formal acknowledgment of the film’s impact to the canon and being a part of the culture,” Rees tells Variety of having her movie chosen. “Even though artists have to try to find your validation from inside, it’s nice to be seen.”
And as a Black filmmaker in particular, Rees adds, “it’s important to be included for future generations of filmmakers, if [Criterion] is the thing that’s being taught in schools.”
“When they’re absent, then the assumption is there’s none in existence,” she explains. “There’s no Black filmmakers here, so there must not be any worthy of being here. I don’t see any queer women here, so there must not be any. I think it matters.”
In fact, ahead of Rees’ selection, only eight Black filmmakers’ work had been featured in the collection. Four Black American directors were represented — Charles Burnett (1990’s “To Sleep With Anger”), Spike Lee (1989’s “Do the Right Thing” and 2000’s “Bamboozled”), William Greaves (1968’s “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” and 2005’s “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2”) and Oscar Micheaux (1925’s “Body and Soul”) — with four Black directors from outside the U.S. also selected — including Palcy, Steve McQueen (Britain, 2008’s “Hunger”), Djibril Diop Mambéty (Senegal, 1973’s “Touki Bouki”) and Ousmane Sembène (Senegal, 1966’s “Black Girl”).
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Fortunately, Rees won’t be the only Black American woman represented for long, as Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love and Basketball” will be released in September. (Bill Duke and Melvin Van Peebles’ works are also set to be added to Criterion in coming months. Likewise, Black women are more substantively represented on the Criterion Channel, with works from Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, Mati Diop, Janicza Bravo, and the sole film directed by Maya Angelou among those included.) When explaining why her movie’s selection was meaningful, Prince-Bythewood echoed Rees’ sentiments.
“I used to buy Criterion films back when I was in film school. A film in the collection meant it was special, and I wanted to study the greats,” the filmmaker explains.
“It is vital that more Black directors are added to the collection. Our talent has been ignored for too long. We have made some really special films that speak to our existence and experience,” she adds. “When you give them the Criterion stamp, you are telling the film world that our voices matter. That our voices are necessary. And that yes, our voices can carry greatness.”
As one of the few Black filmmakers already in the collection, Burnett praised Rees’ induction into the Criterion canon.
“If you would have asked me, if Dee Rees’ name and her film Pariah are included in every American film catalogue, I would have argued how could that not be the case?” Burnett says. “It is hard to imagine how a person of such talent could be ignored, but not surprising.”
“She and many other talented women who, having accomplished so much and produced such memorable work, deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as other filmmakers,” he continues. “I’m pleased that she is getting support from her fellow filmmakers calling attention to what needs to be done. My hope is that this gets enough support and attention to make a difference in how we treat important voices. We need to support people who make a difference in our lives. People should definitely see the film Pariah.”
When Criterion initially reached out to Rees, it was interested in featuring 2017’s “Mudbound,” but the filmmaker instead suggested her 2011 debut, a groundbreaking and personal piece of queer cinema starring Adepero Oduye as Alike, a lesbian teenager trying to embrace her identity despite her family and friends’ ideas about who she should be.
As part of the process of crafting the special features for the release, Rees admits she didn’t rewatch the movie (she doesn’t rewatch any of her work after it’s been completed).
“It’s more fun to see the characters through other people’s experience of it as stuff comes back from audiences,” Rees explains. “Where other people are getting to experience it and take these characters on their own, interpret them as their own and read them as your own. It’s more fun to see it like reflected back to you through the audience’s eyes.”
Instead, Rees focused on having the opportunity to celebrate with her cast and crew a decade down the road in their careers. Among the special features in the Criterion release is a cast reunion with Rees and actors Oduye, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, and Aasha Davis. There’s also a behind the scenes look at the making of the film, featuring Rees, cinematographer Bradford Young, production designer Inbal Weinberg, producer Nekisa Cooper, and editor Mako Kamitsuna.
The Criterion process was a welcome trip down memory lane for the filmmaker, who wrote the script for the movie when she was a student at NYU, penning the project during breaks in work on her professor Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” set. From there, she adapted the project into the 2007 short film, before making the 2011 feature, which Lee executive produced. Now, her work is recognized alongside his and other filmmakers she admires.
“It’s heady,” Rees says of the honor and its full circle nature. “I try to not think of the scope of it because it’ll feel overwhelming.”
Some highlights from Rees’ list of favorite Criterion movies include “Mouchette,” by Robert Bresson; “Les Blank: Always for Pleasure,” a compilation of the documentarian’s films from his nearly 50-year career; and Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied,” which was released as part of the “Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs” collection on June 22.
Another favorite is “A Woman Under the Influence,” from John Cassavetes. About the film, Rees says, “This is one of the films that really had a big impact on how I came to understand performance and the complexities of character and relationship.”
“Gena Rowlands’ performance especially is just so devastating, in how she manages to be scared, funny and heartbroken all at the same time,” the filmmaker adds. “The scene at the dinner table with her husband’s coworkers hits me in the stomach every time. I’m just as uncomfortable as they are, and at the same time feeling sorry for her and also tensing at how Peter Falk’s character is taking all this in and what he might say.”
Rees also calls out Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger” among her top films, touting Danny Glover’s lead performance. “I understand both everything and nothing just from his smile,” she says.
“[I] know that something else is coming something more insidious is growing and it keeps me on edge — is a rock in my stomach, yanks me back and forth between being intrigued by Harry and despising him — making me feel just as manipulated as Gideon does,” she explains.
Rees adds that the film “perfectly captures the mood and modalities of Southern transplant culture — in the casting, the vernacular, the body language, everything.”
“I know those people. They are my family. It’s just all around extremely skillful filmmaking, in placing you in the story, keeping you there and making you feel — and even think — exactly how the characters do.”