In a bold and brave move, talented filmmaker Dee Rees, an alumna of New York University’s (NYU) graduate film program, brings “Pariah,” a semi-autobiographical account of discovering her own sexuality, to the big screen. Open in theaters today, the riveting R-rated picture starring Adepero Oduye and featuring Kim Wayans, is executive produced by Spike Lee, who was one of Rees’ professors at NYU and mentored her throughout the process of making the film.
I recently spoke to Rees about bringing the provocative project, which initially began as the thesis for her graduate program, to the world at large.
Kimberly C. Roberts: I thought that you handled this subject matter extremely well, especially for a character that was so young. Why was it important for you to tell this story?
Dee Rees: It was important to tell this story because I thought it was important for people to know that it’s okay to be themselves. When I came out, I had a struggle with my parents, even though I came out when I was 27. I struggled with my own spirituality, and realized that my spirituality and my sexuality weren’t mutually exclusive, and also I struggled with the idea that I didn’t have to check a box. Like (main character) Alike, I didn’t identify as very butch, I didn’t identify as very feminine either, but somewhere in between, and realized it was okay to just be myself. I didn’t have to be what people expected me to be. I also think that the film transcends race and sexuality. You don’t have to be gay to get it, or you don’t have to be Black to get it, and anybody who has ever struggled with their identity is going to be able to enjoy this film.
K.C.R: How did you find Adepero? I thought she was very good. She just had a lot of heart — you really felt sympathetic because you could tell she was confused, in a way. She knew what she wanted but didn’t know how to go about it. She was like “Now that I’ve made this discovery, what do I do about it?”
D.R: Exactly! She’s an amazing actress, and Adepero is actually 33 years old, so she shaved off 16 years to play this role. She’s really acting and putting on an amazing transformation. From the moment she walked into the room she was amazing. She was in the character, and I believed every second of it, like she walked off the page.
K.C.R: I was about halfway into the film before I realized that (Alike’s mother) Audrey was being played by Kim Wayans. Of course, we always see her actin’ a fool, but how did you know that she had dramatic skills?
D.R: Audrey was an important role to cast, and it was hard to cast because it had to be somebody who was sympathetic and believable. I auditioned a lot of actresses who weren’t really able to capture who Audrey was. We saw a lot of “Audreys,” and everybody kept giving us the same stereotypical “angry Black mom” thing. Kim came in and she was the first woman who captured the sensitivity and loneliness. I’m excited because it was her first dramatic role. She really captures who Audrey was and really makes the character three-dimensional and believable.
K.C.R: Do you think it’s important for young people to see this film?
D.R: Absolutely, because I think this film, at the core, is about being yourself, and it’s about not necessarily succumbing to who your friends want you to be or who your parents want you to be. It’s about being true to yourself, and I think any young person can relate to that — who has gone through or will go through that struggle.
K.C.R: You’re opening this weekend, and we know how important it is for Black films to do well in their first weekend. What would you like to say to our readers to get them to come out and see this film — anybody who might be skeptical or might have the wrong impression about what they think they’re going to see?
D.R: I would say that this is a film about family. It’s about love and friendship. I think you’re going to see a Black film that you haven’t seen before, and I think you’re going to see images that are positive and images that reflect the full range of the Black experience. This is a film that’s going to touch people, and that’s going to change your mind.