‘Pariah’ director Dee Rees’ odd path: bunion pads to Spike Lee
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Film directors come from a wide range of backgrounds. But not many can say they spent their formative career years marketing panty liners and bunion pads.
Dee Rees, the writer and director behind the new lesbian coming-of-age film “Pariah,” did just that, working for Procter & Gamble and Dr. Scholl’s before a chance encounter prompted a career change.
The Times caught up with Rees, 34, a protégé of Spike Lee’s, about her New York-set film, as she took a break from working on her next projects (an HBO series set in the education world that stars Viola Davis, a thriller feature titled “Bolo” and a movie about a fiftysomething female insurance adjuster enduring a midlife crisis, among others).
A hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, “Pariah” tells of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a teenager struggling with her sexuality amid a quilt work of friends, enemies, romantic partners and family members — some of whom are more understanding than others. The microbudget drama was acquired by Focus Features and opened commercially in late December.
You’re a young black lesbian making a movie about a young black lesbian. How autobiographical is this film?
A lot of people think it’s ripped from my life. But I have to preface the answer by saying I’m from the Nashville suburbs. Hip brownstones aren’t my world. I changed it because I’m not sure this story could have happened in Nashville. There’s a lot of anonymity and freedom in New York [where Rees later went to film school] that you don’t have in Nashville.
What were the thematic similarities to your life?
I very much related to the idea of sexual identity and how it doesn’t have to be black and white. When I first came out, there would be butch people in baseball caps, and that wasn’t me, and then there were girls in heels and dresses, and that didn’t feel like that was me either. But after a while I learned there’s a lot of ground in between.
There’s a lot of tension in the film, whether it’s between Alike and her conservative mother (Kim Wayans) or other girls in the lesbian community. Where did that come from?
When I came out [at 27] I never experienced physical violence [like Alike does]. But I still had a long way to go. My parents thought sexuality was a choice. A lot of my coming-out was helping them see that it wasn’t.
A black female protagonist is pretty rare in film, and a black lesbian is even rarer. Did you watch any movies with characters like Alike when you were young?
Growing up I was very aware that there weren’t many people like me on the screen. My only queer reference was from a few scenes in “The Color Purple” — and I had to leave the room for them. My role models came mainly from books, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and a lot of others.
How did you become a director then?
I came to films secondhand. I got an MBA in Tallahassee, Fla. My first job was working at Procter & Gamble marketing panty liners, where you’re basically selling insecurity. You’re asking women, “Are you sure? Are you really sure?” I thought it was a way to do something creative while making a lot of money.
I soon realized that all the really creative stuff in marketing happens at ad agencies. So I left. But I went to work at a company called Schering-Plough, where I was working for Dr. Scholl’s. I was marketing bunion pads and wart removers. Another glamorous job. [Laughs.] And then one day I went on a commercial shoot for shoe insoles. And I’m like “I like this.” So I asked someone on the set, “How do I do this every day?” And he said, “You go to film school.” And that led me to NYU.
While you were there, you struck up a relationship with Spike Lee, who wound up serving as an executive producer on “Pariah.” How did your relationship with him evolve?
Spike is a professor who teaches a master class [in directing] at NYU. I would sign up for office hours all the time. So it started as a kind of personal mentorship. Then I interned with him on “Inside Man.” And then when he needed an intern on “When the Levees Broke,” I applied again. And he started informally mentoring me on the script of “Pariah.”
How did he influence what we see on screen?
He would just give me a lot of feedback. I would bring him drafts of the script, and I would ask him if a scene was working. His biggest thing as a director is that you don’t get to give footnotes to the audience. You don’t get to stand up and say, “The truck didn’t show up that day.” He would say things like, “This may be clear to you as a writer, but it’s not clear in the scene.”
Has he seen the finished film?
After we edited it we showed him a rough cut. He was brutally honest. He would say things like, “These moments are redundant. Do they really need to be there?”
When you make a movie about a social topic, people are inclined to see you as some kind of symbol. Do you view “Pariah” as a movie that can advance a political cause?
I think the themes are universal. It’s about identities and how you see yourself. But I also think the reaction to “Pariah” says that audiences are progressive; they want to see different kinds of stories. We did the  short film that the feature is based on, and we went to 40 festivals and won 25 awards. That wasn’t just the choir speaking up.
— Steven Zeitchik