a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Dee Rees, screenwriter & director
Where: Netflix streaming & DVD
Why Watch: Dee Rees, a protege of Spike Lee at NYU (he is an executive producer of Pariah) is a lesbian African-American writer and director also known for Bessie, an Emmy-award winning HBO collaboration with Queen Latifah based on legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. Pariah began as Rees’s NYU thesis film – a 30-minute first act – and was further developed at the Sundance directors lab before receiving raves at the Sundance Film Festival.
Inspired by Dees’s own experience with her conservative family, Pariah is the coming-out, coming-of-age story of Alike, a young black lesbian teenager confident in her sexuality, but uncertain how to demonstrate that to the world – especially her overprotective, religious mother. That one-sentence synopsis sounds cliche, and in many ways, the film does dip into those misunderstood-gay-kid melodramatics. But what’s refreshing about Pariah is that Alike – played with remarkable openness by Adepero Oduye – embraces and knows exactly who she is, even if she doesn’t yet have the experience to back it up. She tags along with her out, butch best friend Laura (a strong Pernell Walker) to underground lesbian clubs, dons b-boy baggy jeans and cap, and confidently asks for a strap-on. She slowly gathers the tools – and the courage – she needs to approach, and eventually become intimate, with other girls.
Where Alike falters, is also where the film missteps – in her interactions with her family. While Pariah subtly explores the particular difficulties for African Americans in the LBGT community – the strap-on Alike obtains is white – it also over-relies on conservative, religious family stereotypes. Her mother (Kim Wayans), a woman frustrated with her place in life and constantly suspicious of her husband, distances herself and casts judgement from afar. While there is empathy to be had here, the film doesn’t mine it; instead it focuses on her unjustified anger and resentment while casting the cheating husband (Charles Parnell) as the more sympathetic, caring parental figure. It’s a troubling trope that hotly climaxes in a scene of Precious-like violence that drives Alike out of the house and across the country in a liberating move.
Ultimately, though, Pariah‘s strengths outweigh its flaws. The opening sequence –our introduction to Alike as she experiences her first gay club, playfully banters with Laura about the numbers they each received, and travels home by bus while stoically shedding her b-boy gear for a pink baby “Angel” tee – is a wonder in its economy of exposition and subtly shifting tone. (It’s also beautifully shot in rich reds and blues by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young.) But it’s Alike’s unashamed certainty of who she is, her charming goofiness with Laura, and her shy, trusting nature of Bina (a romantic interest played by Aasha Davis) that make the film such a a success. As Alike takes pen to paper to work through the experience, she realizes: “Breaking is freeing. Broken is freedom. I am not broken. I am free.” If only we could all be so free.
Bechdel Test: PASS