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Dee Rees Brought a Flamethrower to the Indie Spirit Awards

The ‘Mudbound’ director gave a fiery acceptance speech as she declared her Netflix film to be undeniably true cinema.
By  · Published on March 5th, 2018

The ‘Mudbound’ director gave a fiery acceptance speech as she declared her Netflix film to be undeniably true cinema.

Saturday night, the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards gave the Robert Altman Award to Mudbound. It’s an honor shared by the cast, casting directors, and director and  is meant to recognize films with outstanding ensemble casts. In accepting the award, director and co-writer Dee Rees had something to say about craft over all else. Her speech was an electrifying indictment of the gatekeeping around the awards community. In short, it was a reminder that craft, and appreciation of craft, should matter more than how the film was consumed.

The conversation about rules and mediums of consumption is not significant. In fact, not only does it not matter, it gets in the way of access for a lot of people. To that end, it was nice to see a diverse group of nominees and winners at the Indie Spirit Awards this year. Rees addressed the issue directly in her speech:

“I know that as independent filmmakers, as the so-called rebels, as the outsiders creating without respect to means or access, I know that we of all makers are far, far beyond any identity tokenism or snobbery of form in both production and distribution.”

You can read the side-eye and shade being thrown at all the racist, sexist problems swirling around the film community’s attempt to honor itself. Rees’s point was that maybe if we all just talked about craft — wherever it might be found — a festival celebrating craft things could be a bit better.

And, why don’t we? The films we discuss are beautiful, artistic endeavors. Yet, even Rees’s peers are derailed into conversations about the appropriateness of certain mediums over others and what should qualify for consideration.

Why does it matter how we define cinema?

Let’s provide two quick points of context for her speech. First, most awards ceremonies, including the Indie Spirit Awards, have theatrical release requirements. That’s a tricky thing for most independent filmmakers. These days, most of them are offered VOD-only deals. So, if indie filmmakers want to qualify for an awards ceremony, like the Academy Awards, they have to pay to put the film in theaters themselves.

Second, streaming services Netflix, Amazon, and even Apple are getting into the original content market, and they also come in and drop big money to acquire films. Last summer, there was a major disagreement between Netflix and the Cannes Film Festival. Netflix, which picked up Mudbound at Sundance, had taken a very aggressive approach to eschewing theatrical release. Cannes responded by requiring a French theatrical run to qualify to enter.

Can you imagine if you were an independent filmmaker hoping to get some notice for your work by submitting to big-name festivals? Nevermind that now.

It’s hard enough to get films made by diverse voices. It’s really hard to find money for them. The movie industry has huge problems with systemic racism and misogyny. It’s easy to imagine that an independent filmmaker dealing with that soul-exhausting fight might be frustrated by peers who unwittingly stand up and, for the sake of the perfect over the practical, endorse a ruleset which fundamentally limits access for diverse, independent filmmakers.

Rees responds seemingly directly to that debate as a way to contextualize the discussion as one of access rather than something as simple as proper format for consumption:

“We, radical thinkers that we are, know that cinema has nothing to do with a smartphone screen, a television screen, nor a 52-foot high IMAX screen.”

Netflix played ball for Mudbound. They released it in theaters long enough to qualify it for the Academy Awards. That turned out to be a good move, as the film was nominated for four Oscars. Netflix executives certainly are capable of seeing the artistic value of not just representation in filmmaking but in Rees’s flat-out terrific film. Still, there are large, financial interests at play bigger than the rules of some subjective awards ceremony. These monied interests are fighting over the financial model for the future of filmmaking.

A lot of that battle plays out in rule-shaping access to high-publicity events.

How utterly, devastatingly frustrating it must be to feel compelled to use a moment of recognition to pre-emptively address the comments of tokenism you know are coming. Or, rather than have an opportunity to talk about the fineness of the craft of your actors, feel compelled to remind everyone that those actors slayed just as hard on the tv screen as anyone did in the theater.

Rees did both. Mudbound is great, but, no-foolin’, her acceptance speech deserves an award. Will there be a change in the rules? That’s unknown. But hopefully speeches like this will start to open eyes and ears to what she was really saying.

It’s hard to make films. Rees shouldn’t have to fight this fight on a night of celebration. This problem is enabled, in part, by unconsidered positions.

Here is a full transcript of the speech:

“I know that as independent filmmakers, as the so-called rebels, as the outsiders creating without respect to means or access, I know that we of all makers are far, far beyond any identity tokenism or snobbery of form in both production and distribution because we know that cinema lies not in a strip of celluloid, a length of magnetic tape, nor across the blind plane of an image sensor. No. We know that cinema lies in absorbing electrifying performances by committed actors that make audiences feel, that make them think, that make them observe themselves and the world around them in a more expansive way. Like Rob Morgan’s intelligent, deliberate, emotionally exquisite performance of Hap Jackson. A man whose capabilities, ambition, and work ethic are continually undone by the ancient and overlapping systems of social and economic oppression that still exist today.

“We know that cinema lies in the thoughtful and narrative composition and choreography of subject and movement and color and light. Like Rachel Morrison’s compelling, sculptural, humanistic photography that elevates reality into a visceral, highly textured symphony of feeling. We, radical thinkers that we are, know that cinema has nothing to do with a smartphone screen, a television screen, nor a fifty-two-foot high IMAX screen.

“We know that it has everything to do with the complicated art of montage. Like Mako Kamitsuna’s literary and perfectly fluid interweaving of several different voices and worldviews into a singular sweeping and cohesive narrative. And that it has everything to do with the establishment of mood, tone, and unspoken subtext. Like Tamar-kali’s breathing, haunting, omniscient score that summons the ancestors with every frame. It is the blood beneath the mud.

“We know that cinema is in the wizened authenticity of David Bamba’s sets that never ever feel like sets. We know that cinema is in the just-so bend of the sweat-stained brim of a gray felt hat in Michael T. Boyd’s costume design. It is at the tip of Angie Wells’s makeup brush. It is in Virgil Williams’ illuminating keystroke and deft turns of character. It’s in Jason Clarke’s ecstatic limping run across a road. It’s in Garrett Hedlund’s guilty slump. It’s in Jonathan Banks’ sneer. It’s in the corners of Mary J. Blige’s un-smile beneath wary eyes. It’s in Carey Mulligan’s chew of a cuticle. It’s in Jason Mitchell’s gaze across an impossible field, gone, long gone.

“Mudbound is cinema.

“We are grateful for this recognition, for this Robert Altman Award, and all that it signifies. But we, broad thinkers that we are, know that this or any other award, evaluation, or critique of any artistic work is purely subjective. It’s not about the work itself. It’s not a meritocracy. Nothing diminishes nor enhances the value of the work except the work itself. And that’s what we put on the screen.

“Thank you to Ted Sarandos for taking our work and letting be seen. Thank you Film Independent for acknowledging that it exists. Thank you to Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram for helping me to put together this extraordinary cast. Thank you to Cassian Elwes, Kim, Charles and Poppy at Macro, to Armory and our legion of producers for equipping us with the tools to make it. And thank you to my wife Sarah Broom for helping us to survive. Amen.”


Here is a complete list of the winners at Saturday’s Film Independent Spirit Awards:

Best Picture: Get Out

Best Director: Jordan Peele, Get Out

Best Actor: Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – WINNER

Best Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – WINNER

Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Best Screenplay: Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

Best Cinematography: Call Me By Your Name

Best Film Editing: I, Tonya

Best Documentary: Faces Places

Best International Feature: A Fantastic Woman (Chile) 

Best First Feature: Ingrid Goes West

Best First Screenplay: The Big Sick

John Cassavetes Award (best feature made for under $500,000): Life and Nothing More

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.