Dee Rees has found her next project. The director, who earned an Oscar nod for her screenplay for 2017’s Mudbound, is set to write and direct a feature film adaptation of Porgy and Bess, the George Gershwin opera set in the slums of Charleston that became a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Rees’ Porgy and Bess movie adaptation comes more than 60 years after Otto Preminger first brought the story to the big screen with Sidney Poitier in the lead.
Deadline reports that MGM has set Dee Rees to write and direct a Porgy and Bess movie adaptation of the acclaimed George Gershwin opera, and Irwin Winkler and Charles Winkler are set to produce the film. MGM secured the film rights from the Gerswhin Estate, which worked closely with both Rees and the Winklers.
Porgy and Bess is a beloved opera adapted from the 1925 DuBose Heyward novel Porgy, set in a 1930s African-American Charleston neighborhood known as Catfish Row. The opera tells the tale of a disabled beggar named Porgy who “tries to rescue Bess from her violent lover Crown, and drug dealer Sportin’ Life,” per Deadline.
“ Porgy and Bess is at its core, a love story,” Rees said in a statement. “So I’m very excited to take on the challenge of this highly venerated, iconic material and lift the architecture of this unlikely love story and re-site it at a place and moment of resistance.” The director added:
“With the help of a terrific artistic team, my vision is to invest this community with a new agency and re-locate the characters from a fictional landscape mostly viewed from the outside to a real geography with actual historical and cultural roots, relevance, and consequence and that has been built and lived from the inside.
By accessing the spirit of the lyrics as they’ve been conjured, reinterpreted, and rearranged by greats like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, I’m most excited about inviting today’s brightest musical talents to lend new voice and spirit to both the joys and the frustrations of the ongoing struggle of African American citizens in this country.
In this new adaptation, I’m hoping to raise the stakes for our hero and heroine, giving them full expression of existence placing emphasis not just on the circumstantial but on their rich inner lives and emotional pasts.”
Porgy and Bess was originally written as an opera in 1935, making its way to Broadway where it saw massive success and songs like “Summertime” turned into jazz music standards. It was adapted into a 1959 film directed by Otto Preminger starring Sidney Poitier as Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, and has since seen its stage revivals win numerous Tony Awards.
Rees earned lots of acclaim for Mudbound, but followed that up with The Last Thing He Wanted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – a film that, unfortunately, received abysmal reviews. Porgy and Bess would be Rees’ first musical, though it’s unclear whether she’ll do a strict adaptation of the opera. It’s been more than half a century since Porgy and Bess first hit the stage, and operas are not quite as popular as they were in the ’30s, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Rees modernized the story into a straightforward musical.