Friday Editor’s Pick: Pariah (2011)

by on November 28, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Dec 2 at 8:00* at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*With Rees and members of the cast and crew in person!

Dee Rees’ Fort Greene-set feature gets a sneak preview tonight, courtesy of BAM and NewFest. This coming-of-age story follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old lesbian and burgeoning poet, as she navigates the cross-currents of sexual awakening and parental disapproval.


Oduye’s performance has had critics buzzing since the film’s Sundance debut, and the praise for Dee Rees’ direction has been just as strong. Together, they make Pariah one of the year’s “Must See” releases twice over. And for all you locals, Fort Greene has rarely looked this good, nabbing DP Bradford Young the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance.


Wesley Morris for The Boston Globe:

Dee Rees’s “Pariah” is about the loosening of sexual and social expectations among black people in Brooklyn. Its protagonist, Alike (Adepero Oduye), lives two lives. By day, she’s a poet and straight-A student from a tight middle-class family. By night, she’s a steely fixture at a new lesbian nightclub that she doesn’t really like. This is essentially a coming-out drama that naturally blends humor and crisis without ever blowing a gasket.
In that sense the film communes with the New Queer Cinema of three decades ago. But it’s also suffused with shifting social textures and wonderful grace notes. Alike (it’s pronounced “AH-Leekay”) has a loving but rigidly churchy mother (a very good Kim Wayans) and a loving but aloof detective father (an even better Charles Parnell), and they’ve given their daughter a long leash. Maintaining it requires Alike to maintain an illusion of femininity. So on her bus rides home, she removes her baseball cap and ‘do rag and replaces her earrings. It’s not much of a makeover, and yet watching her change broke my heart. She’s going back into hiding.
“Pariah” is about the grunt work of identity politics. This is a 17-year-old girl trying to figure out what kind of black woman and lesbian to be.


Dee Rees introduces herself in a meet-the-filmmaker spot for Sundance:



Elise Nakhnikian at The House Next Door:

When she and writer-director Dee Rees were trying to turn their short film into a feature, says producer Nekisa Cooper in Pariah’s production notes, potential funders kept saying it was “a bit too ‘small and specific.'” Specific? Sure. But there’s nothing small about this deeply felt coming-of–age story. […]

This is the kind of movie that lives or dies in the details, and Pariah gets nearly all of them right… When she lays back and lets her story unspool, [director Dee] Rees displays a winning intimacy with the world she portrays, a canny feel for her characters, and an eye and ear for little things that loom large, like the truncated speech that clues Alike in to Laura’s true feelings for her. It’s all good because, as Alike’s new friend says of one of her poems, it feels so real.


Leslie Stonebraker for The New York Press:

Though Oduye is a quiet force, it is the lighting and camera scheme of Pariah that breathe life into the uncharted world of its protagonist. Everywhere except Alike’s school is dark and dense, with limbs melting into settings as the lines of the scene blur and change. The hand-held camera shows a slightly shaky, off-kilter world where characters are fragmented by the frame and Alike is never allowed full cinematic alignment with another.
Throughout the film, Alike herself is not truly defined, alternating her gender appearance and switching between her full name and a nickname. In fact, each character in turn attempts to label Alike, as a daughter, fellow dyke, innocent child or indie bisexual. But it is only when Alike takes her own identity in hand, deciding to move out, enter an early college program and become a writer, that she peacefully comes into her own. Ultimately, Pariah chronicles pain and beauty in the birth of an artist. The film’s only real pariahs are those who reject her.



The New York Times’ Karen Durbin names Oduye’s performance one of the holiday season’s “star turns under the radar”:

It isn’t every movie that allows an actor to lose 15 years and do a little gender bending while she’s at it. But that’s what happens with Adepero Oduye, the star of Dee Rees’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama, “Pariah” (Dec. 28). In her professional photographs Ms. Oduye — a pre-med student at Cornell University until she realized she wanted to act — appears glamorous and sophisticated. But in the movie’s opening scene we see the 33-year-old actress in a funky New York strip club, looking every skinny inch an urban teenage boy, right down to the baggy pants and sideways cap, grinning like a fool and waving dollar bills at the dancers.
Only the strip club is a lesbian hangout… “Pariah” is a drama about coming out, and an eventual physical confrontation with her mother is no joke. But until then Alike’s youthful efforts to define herself often play like a comedy of errors. There’s the strap-on dildo, for example: amazingly ugly, not the right color and almost as big as she is. It would be scary if it weren’t so hilarious and, judging by the wide-eyed look on her face, the ultimate case of buyer’s remorse.
Ms. Oduye is blessed with a megawatt smile, but apart from that she’s a master of understatement. Without having to say or do a lot, she draws us close to Alike and keeps us there. We can tell when she’s hurting, and we hurt too. As with most gay adolescents, the pain of otherness is inevitable.


More love for Oduye from Ed Gonzalez at Slant, who has more mixed feelings on the film itself:

Like its self-conscious imagery, Pariah‘s screenplay is, well, overblown. Ree gets how a child’s closeted life can lead to contentiousness in the home, wrecking relations between children and their parents, husbands and their wives, and throughout scenes that recall the best of Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother and Fox’s Glee, scenes so truthful they could only have been based on real incidents from Ree’s past, the film intimately, painfully depicts that seemingly irrational view parents have of their children’s homosexuality, the way they’re torn between protecting their offspring to death and casting them out. But for every achingly sketched moment of a closeted life wanting to scream its truth, you get two nuance-sucking articulations of how tough it still is to be gay—not to mention gay and nonwhite—in America today. […]
But I’ll take Pariah’s heavy-handed butterfly metaphor and the bluntness with which the vocabulary words (e.g. “clandestine”) Laura studies for her GED annoyingly coincide with her lesbianism. I’ll even take the film’s music-video chic, because that means also having Oduye’s great performance. She makes poignant, without sentimentalizing, the sad daily ritual of Alike dyking herself down on the bus ride from school to home, the unspokenness with which she and Laura acknowledge the rules of their friendship after a dramatically undramatic tiff, and the way a moment of tenderness between siblings opens the door for a sister, in her own language, to tell the other that she accepts her lifestyle—without either of them saying what exactly is being accepted. It’s a smart, tough performance that’s full of range and never feels self-serving. It’s in her tears but it’s also in her smile, as in a scene where Arthur teaches Alike how to park a car and she pleads to drive the car home. It’s a rare moment of happiness for these two characters, and it’s one that Oduye understands as the kind of fuel a gay kid like Alike, or like Ree once was, needs in order to remind themselves that things do get better.


Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits:

Last September, in response to Floyd Mayweather’s homophobic rant against Manny Pacquiao, Stanley Crouch wrote an essay suggesting that African Americans “exemplify the modern age in their contradictions as thoroughly as any other ethnic group.” Yes, black voters showed up in California to vote against same sex marriage. But Crouch observed that, thanks to Amiri Baraka, homophobia had been part of black nationalism as early as the 1963 March on Washington. (In a 2009 interview with 3AM Magazine, Baraka claimed that his words emerged from anger that “was part of the mindset” created by numerous political assassinations, but he didn’t apologize for his homophobia.)
Since black homophobia is often too easily portrayed as a symptom of race rather than a symptom of class, it’s a relief that writer-director Dee Rees has arrived to investigate the matter. Her debut narrative feature, Pariah — an extension of her 2007 short — finds its best footing when illustrating how middle-class aspirations and the desire for stability are often responsible.



Brandon Harris at Filmmaker, as part of a larger Sundance 2011 round-up:

A study in the ways in which young blacks caught between social worlds are often forced to wear emotional and physical masks, Rees’ film, which suggests that traditional African-American social and cultural mores often don’t make room for young women struggling to figure out their sexual identity, exhibits a sensitivity to the nuances of class and style among city-dwelling blacks that is not evident anywhere else in recent American cinema. This IS NOT Precious. While once again a black mother proves to be the fall guy (a two-note Kim Wayans), it isn’t because of destitution, or drug use, or poverty, or neglect; it’s the far more common affliction of over-protection and ignorance, of a muddled understanding of one’s responsibilities as a Christian woman to love above all else. Aided by her remarkably talented cinematographer Bradford Young, who brought a similar grace to the palette and shooting style of the under-appreciated 2009 Slamdance entry Mississippi Damned (perhaps still the best recent American independent film without theatrical distribution), Rees has made a film that will hopefully make herself and her fantastic young lead Adepero Oduye stars, identity markers be damned.


Film Society of Lincoln Center’s John Wildman interviewed Rees when the film screened at New Directors/New Films this past spring, and asked her about the influence of Pariah‘s executive producer, Spike Lee:


FSLC: Be honest, what’s your favorite Spike Lee movie – and why?
Dee Rees: SCHOOL DAZE is my favorite Spike Lee movie because I saw it at a time when I was young and daydreaming about what my college experience might be like. I knew for sure that I wanted to go to a HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and it was one of the only films that provided a complete perspective on what that experience might be like. I also knew that I wanted to be a “greek”, and SCHOOL DAZE was a huge wake-up call about Sorority/ Fraternity life and how in some ways the institution as a whole has lost its focus. The film made me rethink my choice, and although I still ended up “pledging” in college, I had a more sober perspective about it and it shaped my attitudes for the better.
My favorite sequence in the film is the “battle” between the “jigaboos” and the “wanna bes” because it was a really candid and deep articulation of the “colorstruckness” and complexion-based discrimination that we still perpetuate amongst ourselves as African Americans. I personally identified with the “jigaboos” and their song reaffirmed my own sense of beauty and officially stomped on the widespread, ridiculous notions around “good hair”. That film pulled no punches, it called everybody out and was revolutionary.


Compiled by Matthew Connolly

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →