Director: Dee Rees
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis
Dee Rees’ Pariah is a film which could easily be pigeonholed, reduced to its most basic components by those who would prefer to make immediate, superficial judgments about a film’s accessibility sight unseen, dismissing it as a “black movie” or a “gay movie,” niche within niche, that has nothing to say to them. This is unfortunate because Pariah is not just one of the best films of the last couple of years, but one which contains the kind of thematic universality that is rare and precious. Though the film is set in a specific milieu and turns on a specific set of conflicts, it is so powerful and contains such deep emotional truth that it easily transcends any attempts to limit it as a special interest film.
Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, a 17 year old Brooklyn teenager struggling to bring her identity into focus. She knows that she’s a lesbian, though she hasn’t quite figured out how she wants to express that identity and remains officially closeted to her family, which includes a younger sister (Sahra Mellesse), and parents Arthur (Charles Parnell) and Audrey (Kim Wayans), who know the truth but believe that if they don’t acknowledge it, it can be made to go away. Though she’s taken tentative steps into the gay community with the help of her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), at home she downplays her sexuality and struggles to find the balance between conforming to her parents’ rigid notions of who she should be and being comfortable in her own skin. How she dresses, how she’s viewed by outsiders, and who she’s hanging out with are all of great concern to Audrey, who makes it her mission to shame and control the elements of Alike’s personality which she views as errant and correctable. To that end, she does what she can to undercut Alike’s friendship with Laura and insists that she instead spend her time with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of one of her co-workers, but she ultimately can’t control what is true about Alike as a person. Alike will have to make a series of difficult decisions within a short span of time, but once she does so she can say with confidence that she isn’t running away from anything, she’s making a choice – a choice to be herself and to live life on her own terms.
On the surface, Pariah is a film about sexual identity, but though it filters the narrative through the point-of-view of a character coming to terms with her sexuality, it’s really about identity generally and the sometimes painful process that all adolescents go through as they try to form a unique sense of self. One of the recurring motifs in the film is Alike’s style of dress and the way that it changes depending on where she is and who she is with. At home, Audrey tries to dictate her style, buying her clothes and insisting that she wear certain items, ignoring the pleading in Alike’s voice when she expresses that the clothes “aren’t [her]” as she tries to force Alike to fit into the image she’s formed of what her daughter should be. Though the conflict between Alike and Audrey is the film’s most intense, Alike will ultimately have several variations of this moment throughout the film as she tries on different guises while trying to determine what it means to be Alike and how she wants to outwardly express that identity. When we meet her at the beginning of the film, when she’s out with Laura, she’s dressed androgynously (like Laura). When she and Laura split up for the night to go to their respective homes, she hastily changes because she can’t let her parents see how she was dressed while she was out, but she also doesn’t want Laura to see how she presents to her parents. The style she adopts when she’s with Laura is ultimately as much a pose as the one she’s forced into at home, a fact which she tacitly admits late in the film when she shies away from adopting Laura’s style of dress, and which is subtly acknowledged once she begins hanging out with Bina, forgoing the baseball caps which echo Laura in favor of scarves similar to the ones that Bina wears (which are themselves disposed of when Alike’s relationship with Bina sours). This is one of the reasons why it’s so reductive to call Pariah a film about a gay teenager. It’s a film about how developing your own voice and becoming a person in your own right can be a process as painful and brutal as it is necessary.
In telling this story, Rees infuses it with a stark complexity that makes even moments of villainy seem contextualized enough that they aren’t so cut and dried. Watching the film again recently, I was struck by the thread of loneliness running through it – not just the loneliness of Alike, who spends much of the film isolated by her fear of being rejected by those she loves, or even Laura who, having been disowned by her parents, is the embodiment of Alike’s worst fears; but Audrey, too. Audrey is the closest thing the film has to a villain, yet when seen from a distance, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her, too. She’s stuck in a dead marriage to a man who spends most of his time out of the house and makes it clear that he’d rather be away whenever he actually is in the house (and who is also clearly having an affair though, like Alike’s sexuality, that subject is treated as something that doesn’t exist so long as it isn’t openly acknowledged), her attempts to force her daughter to be a mirror of herself and thereby affirm Audrey’s own sense of identity have pushed Alike so far away that there may as well be an ocean between them, and in the brief scenes we see of Audrey at work, it is clear that she isn’t particularly well-liked by her co-workers. In many ways, it is Audrey rather than Alike who is the pariah of the title and though she is such a hard woman, and played in uncompromising fashion by Wayans, it’s understandable why she clings to religion like a zealot. It is the only tool she has at her disposal to try to force people to come to or stay on her side, and she’s so blinded by her fear of being abandoned and alone that she can’t see that she’s draining all meaning out of her relationships with the people around her. In the short term it is Alike who is hurt, but in the long run Alike will be fine, while Audrey will discover that attaching conditions to her love means that most will choose to leave it behind.
Pariah is a film of incredible grace, subtlety, and complexity. Naturally it made less than a million dollars at the box office and was never in more than 24 theaters at a time, and when awards season rolled around it was recognized almost exclusively by black critics groups (the lone exception being an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Oduye as Best Female Lead). It did not make an impact when it was released in 2011, but I think that with time its reputation and its number of champions will only grow. It’s a great movie and great movies always find their audience eventually.