Pariah (2011) tells the story of Alike, a teenager living in the Bronx and her struggle to balance hiding her lesbian identity from her family and living authentically outisde of her home.
Dee Rees, the writer and director, most commonly known for Mudbound (2017) wrote the script back in 2005, when she was an intern on the Spike Lee film Inside Man. At the time she was going through her own coming out process. “I didn’t feel like I quite fit in. I wasn’t hard enough to be butch, I wasn’t soft enough to be femme, so I was somewhere, kind of like, in the gray area,” she says in an interview with MakingOf.com. Alike, the protagonist in Pariah mirrors Rees’ confusion on how to fit in. In a conversation with itlmedia Rees shared, “Like Alike, my struggle was how to be in the world. I mean, I knew I loved women, that wasn’t the question. My uncertainty was what that meant for how it had to be.”
The definition of the word “pariah” is directly referenced in the first shot of the movie; “A person without status. A rejected member of society. An outcast.” Alike’s struggle isn’t grappling with the fact that she’s gay, it’s the confusion on how to navigate the world being a black gay woman. Throughout the film she’s trying to simulataneously express her queerness, discover her specific queer identity, and hide all of it from her parents.
We don’t often see a black lesbian protagonist in a starring role, let alone multiple making up a large portion of the cast. The other queer women in the film are all very different. “These are different women with different voices, different tastes, they don’t all dress the same, they don’t speak the same way. Everybody has their own way of being,” Dee Rees states in the itlmedia interview.
The friendship shared between Alike and Laura, two black lesbian teenagers is a very accurate portrayal of queer friendship, which is extremely significant. Even in bigger budget LGBT movies being released today, there are rarely more than two queer characters, and often those said characters end up romantically involved. While Pariah does touch on romantic relationships, it shines a light on the importance of queer friendship. Laura is there for Alike when she has no place else to go, she forces her out of her comfort zone, encourages her to make a move, and wants to make sure she gets home safely at night. Laura is a confidant and a source of guidance for Alike. Multi-faceted friendships like theirs are rarely depicted in film, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Pariah also accurately depicts the variety of different styles and the importance of personal fashion within the lesbian community. Alike is used to playing a more feminine role for her mother, but throughout the film, she changes into more masculine, butch clothing in secret. She leaves the house in a tank top and nice jeans, and changes into a jersey and flat billed cap in the school bathrooms, or sheds her oversized polo on the bus so when she returns home, her appearance doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Alike’s situation is difficult, she realizes it would be unsafe to be “out” at home, yet she takes pleasure in experimenting with her fashion, she is eager to discover more about her identity, and makes no effort to hide her true self anywhere but home.
“You don’t have to be young, you don’t have to be black, you don’t have to be…from New York City to get something from this movie,” Producer, Nekisa Cooper states. Rees wrote and directed this film from the heart, and based the screenplay off her own experiences. When stories are personal and specific, there is more and more audience members can relate to. At the end of the day, this story is one about finding your identity, which anyone can connect with, regardless of sexual orientation.
Pariah is one of few queer movies to depict an uplifting conclusion, rather than one that ends in death or heartbreak. Without giving away the ending, Alike gets to forge her own path and states; “I’m not broken, I’m free.”
Pariah sponsored by, VA Pride on July 1st at 7:00pm. A suggested donation of 4 dollars for admission will benefit Black Pride RVA.