There are three things [director] Dee Rees told the audience of the 2011 Out In Africa South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival that they shouldn’t say in a pitch: “black,” “lesbian” and “coming of age”; a true but problematic piece of advice. To suggest that a film about a young girl coming out is not just a gay film is equally awkward as it implies that the label is a negative one, which is only true if instant box-office and mass-appeal is an absolute priority. It’s just that, in one way or another, the message should be conveyed that Rees’s debut feature Pariah is a film about the essence of being.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a teenage Brooklyn girl who is struggling to live up to her mother’s expectations while trying to figure out who she is. Certain about her sexual orientation, she’s insecure about where she fits in as a young lesbian woman and a budding writer in search of her authentic voice. While the local gay club is offering some respite, she finds it difficult to identify both with the studs who throw money at strippers, and the femmes waiting to be picked up by the likes of her close friend Laura (Pernell Walker). And caught up between a controlling, disappointed and worried mother (Kim Wayans) and a disillusioned, tired and caring father (Charles Parnell), Alike, just like her parents and sister (Sahra Mellesse), is stuck in a suffocating web of lies that is keeping the fragile family unit from imploding, while preventing the family members from becoming all that they could be.
Dee Rees and her phenomenal cast don’t shy away from complexity and contradiction. Too courageous and curious to surrender to stereotyping, and in possession of the sensibility and wisdom required to capture not just the extraordinary, Rees relies on nuance and small gestures to convey the fears of Alike’s father, the archetypal man who is as gentle, loving and sensitive as he is dominating, as well as the qualms of her mother, who with piercing eyes and a sharp tongue observes and comments on Alike’s transformation, while refusing to confront her husband who is doing everything he can to avoid spending time with his wife.
Rees suggests that forgiveness and healing is only possible if we know who we are and what our purpose is. If we don’t, and if lying is more rewarding than being truthful, and the unknown less frightening than the familiar dysfunction, the only coping mechanisms available when the truth comes out, are to pretend that nothing changed, or plead powerlessness and surrender to prayers.
“Who I am will always be part of my work.” says Dee Rees, who hopes that one day her sexual orientation will be the premise of her stories, rather than the story. Pariah relates to blackness exactly like that; as a premise and not a defining condition and problem to be overcome, which is far from the only reason why Pariah is such an engaging and unique piece of well-written, well-directed and well-acted storytelling. One that speaks to anyone aspiring to or dreaming of reaching their full potential as human beings.