MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, I'll be honest with you, we debated long and hard about how to introduce this next conversation. It's Black History Month, so this is a time when a lot of people remember firsts such as Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Well, now the Oscar season has given us two new names to join those ranks. Filmmaker Dee Rees is the first black woman nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Singer and actor Mary J. Blige is the first anyone ever to be nominated for an acting performance and an original song for the same film.
And that would be noteworthy enough, but "Mudbound," the film that they made, is so much more than that. Critics have raved about the film, the story of two families of sharecroppers - one white, one black - trying to scratch out an existence in post-World War II Mississippi. The New York Times called it a work of historical imagination that lands in the present with disquieting, illuminating force. And they've raved about how singer Mary J. Blige disappears into the role of Florence Jackson, the matriarch of the black family whose oldest son has gone off to fight in the war and finds more dignity overseas than he does at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")
MARY J BLIGE: (As Florence Jackson) They say it's bad luck to watch somebody leave. I held his heartbeat in my hand. I remember every beat. He was warm and alive. I know every place in him. And it was all I can do to not look back.
MARTIN: And Dee Rees and Mary J. Blige are with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Congratulations to you both.
BLIGE: Thank you.
DEE REES: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Your first movie, Dee, was the more intimate coming-of-age film "Pariah," focused on a young African-American woman and how she's trying to figure out how to kind of be in the world. This film is on a much broader canvas. It's a war film. It's a tale of two families. I mean, many, many people have used the word epic, but it's still intimate in its own way, right? And you've drawn upon some of your own family history to help you inform the story. Would you talk a little bit about that?
REES: Yeah, totally. For me, you know, no matter the size of the film, it always comes down to the performances. And so, for me, the performance is about finding what's honest about each character. And so for Florence and for the Jackson family in particular in "Mudbound," I really drew upon my grandmother's experiences. She was born in 1925 in Ferriday, La. And so she would tell me stories about her and her little brother would ride on her mother's cotton sack because her mother didn't want to leave them in the cabin. And so based on that, my grandmother felt like she never wanted to pick cotton. She said she wasn't going to clean anybody's house. She wanted to be a sonographer. And so that's one of the things that I injected into the story, making Florence's daughter want to be a sonographer, to be this thing kind of like beyond what she can see in her everyday life.
MARTIN: What is it that made you want to make this film?
REES: It was the chance to really get into like Florence Jackson and Hap and just really show them as people that had agency, that had ideas about their lives. Like, they weren't just waiting for something to happen. Like, this idea of like wanting ownership of land, like, that's something that's big in my family. Like, when I first moved to New York, in fact, and I had bought a co-op, my parents came to visit. They're like, this is good, but where's your land? And I was like, no, no, no. It's a co-op. Like, there's no land involved. And they were just thinking like I made the biggest mistake of my life.
And so I wanted to bring all that to these characters and give them like depth. And like Ronsel Jackson, like, here's a guy whose like, you know, biggest battle is at home. And like "Pariah" and like "Bessie," I think I'm always exploring this idea about the battle being bloodier at home. You know, sometimes it's easier to, like, win elsewhere.
MARTIN: Mary J., how did you prepare for this particular experience?
BLIGE: I prepared. You know, of course I went and got an acting coach. I went and got someone that can help me bring all these things that I was feeling and that I have even lived as a child. When I was a young girl, my mom used to send us down to Georgia every summer. So I knew what it felt like to have my hands in the dirt and to pick beans and to pick whatever was in the field and to watch my grandmother, who was a sharecropper and a sharecropper's wife, you know, they had a farm. They had chickens. And whatever they killed, we had to eat. Whatever they pulled out of the field, we had to shell beans. We had to pick peas. We had to cut greens. We had to do all of that stuff.
And so I guess it was already in my DNA and embedded in me because every woman - my aunt Sadie (ph), my aunt Helen (ph), all of my aunts were these women. So I think I was prepared, you know, honestly, just through experience. And just having Dee just being, you know, one of the most amazing directors, one of the most sure, confident women to come up to you every time she wanted you to do something and her direction was just everything I needed to, you know, make Florence come to life. And, of course, once you strip Mary J. Blige out of the picture and you throw on the dress and them shoes and, you know, you tear away the wigs and the weaves and the hair color and no perm, and it's all just you, and it's all just Florence. So I think, once all those things were added, Florence was able to live.
MARTIN: You know, it sounds like - this is so interesting to me to hear because, as I say, anybody who's been to one of your concerts feels that you kind of strip yourself bare anyway. But it sounds to me as though you really got to a level of vulnerability in doing this that even you did not expect.
BLIGE: Yeah. I didn't even know that I was that vain until I had to go there. I'm serious. ANd because I'm so used to - all right, you see me. You see me not being afraid to share, just rip into - relive "No More Drama" or relive "Not Gon' Cry," relive, relive, you know, whatever it is - embarrassment, humility, whatever you see me live through.
But I just didn't know that I was so vain, you know, until I had to take away these things or I was that insecure, you know, that I had to take away these things, you know, like wigs and weaves and lashes and nails. And these are little things I was hanging onto that made me be like, wait, a minute. Are you really, really deep or not? It just really opened me up. And it freed me. And it made me see myself in a deeper way because I did not know I was hanging onto these things so tight. And so Dee said, no, let them go. Florence needs to live.
MARTIN: Do you think that your film stands for something else, particularly in this environment where, you know, we are learning and hearing so much about the way women have been mistreated in your industry? And this film is seen as a triumph, like, on every level. Do you have any thoughts about that?
REES: I think that this film demonstrates that, like, when art is kind of received, viewed and critiqued based on the merits of the craft rather than who made it, it necessarily opens the door up to a lot more makers. You know, and you look at this film and, like, a woman DP shot it, a woman director shot it, a woman composer, a woman editor. All of those things, like, become undeniable.
And so even when the film, you know, I'd say the conversation from when this film premiered at Sundance in 2017 to when it, you know, came to Toronto, like, that fall changed because I think that people just had a different critical distance to it. And they were able to kind of like acknowledge it and see it. And, you know, I think, at first, there's maybe a doubt, like, are we really seeing what we're seeing? Is it really this good? And that the film was able to last, you know, I think spoke volumes. It became this force. It became undeniable. And, like, as people compared it to everything else that came out, the craftwork of these women, of these actors and actresses, it stood up.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations to you both. It's wonderful to talk with you. And happy birthday, Dee Rees, I understand.
BLIGE: Happy birthday, Dee.
REES: 41, march toward 50.
MARTIN: Maybe there will be a statue for - maybe you'll get a statue for a present. Maybe that'll be one of the birthday presents.
REES: We'll see. We'll see.
MARTIN: Dee Rees is the director of "Mudbound." It's been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige, who was also with us from our studios in Culver City, Calif., NPR West. Dee Rees, Mary J. Blige, thank you both so much for speaking with us today.
REES: Thanks for having us.
BLIGE: Thank you.
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