As the world awaits the next George Lucas blockbuster or lines up for the next sure shot romantic comedy, “Pariah,” a small but engrossing film open in theaters today, is definitely worthy of attention.
Written and directed by Dee Rees and executive produced by Spike Lee, “Pariah,” originally a short film, was a finalist for the 2009 Sundance/NHK International Award. The expanded feature film had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and was honored with the Festival’s (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Excellence in Cinematography Award (Bradford Young).
“Pariah” is the provocative coming of age story of 17-year-old Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a sweet, sensitive girl who does well in school and writes insightful, heartfelt poetry. Alike lives with her parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell) and her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. While she adores her father, Alike’s mother, who calls her “Lee,” sees her older daughter as an incorrigible “tomboy,” and works overtime at turning her into a “girly-girl.”
Meanwhile, Alike is living a double life, having discovered and embraced her identity as a lesbian. While she dresses in men’s clothing (often changing clothes on the bus) and secretly frequents gay clubs with her best friend, “out” lesbian Laura (whom her mother can’t stand), Alike is still not quite comfortable in her own skin. The more she struggles to claim her identity, the more confused she becomes, and Audrey unwittingly complicates the issue even further when she encourages (forces) Alike’s friendship with Bina (Aasha Davis) the daughter of a co-worker. While Sharonda is aware of her big sister’s sexuality and is totally cool with it, Alike is constantly wrestling with the prospect of telling her parents — although on a certain level they are both aware that she is gay but are in denial about it.
“Pariah” is inspired by Rees’ personal experience, and she does an excellent job of handling this sensitive subject matter, particularly with a main character that is so young. This film could have become a pornographic spectacle, but in Rees’ hands it is the riveting personal journey of a girl who has made a life-changing discovery, but has no idea what to do with the information.
The talented Adepero Oduye delivers a brilliant portrayal of the confused Alike, who is sincerely looking for love, but simply doesn’t know whom to trust. Although Oduye is in her 30s, she is completely convincing as a 17-year-old high school student.
Kim Wayans, who is best known for her outrageous comedic escapades, was so deeply immersed in the role of angst-ridden Audrey that the film was almost at the half over before I recognized her.
While this fascinating film brings to light a sub-culture that may be unfamiliar to some, “Pariah” is basically a story of friendship, family and acceptance. (Rated “R”)
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.