One of the best things about Pariah is that it is very intersectional and political, but still remains a heartfelt and personal film from visionary writer/ director Dee Rees, known for her films, Bessie (2015) and Mudbound (2017).
Pariah explores class, race, gender and lesbian sexuality through the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), an African American teen growing up in Brooklyn who struggles to come out to her family, her community and herself. In many ways, Pariah is a classic coming of age tale, but it’s crucially significant because there are not enough coming of age films centered around African American lesbians. It’s a well-told tale that Rees says is, to some degree, autobiographical. She based it on her 2007 short film of the same name.
Rather than relying on plot points, Rees relies on poetic devices to explore the inner psyche of Alike as she moves through turmoil and frustration to joy, freedom and coming of age as a young black woman who strives to accept herself and her newfound sexuality. In between navigating the objections of her parents, Alike experiments with cross-dressing, finding support in the queer black community and experiencing first love. She writes beautiful poetry that gets noticed by her creative writing teacher, who encourages her to work harder at writing and go to college and become a writer. Alike’s writing gives her a place to experiment with her identity, her sexuality, and her conflicting emotions.
Bradford Young’s camerawork in Pariah is warm and intimate, often framing Alike in tight close-ups, in order to bring the viewer into Alike’s subjectivity. We walk in Alike’s shoes and feel her emotions, whether she is being hurt by her parents, hilariously sporting a dildo, or jubilant about her first kiss and first love.
Pariah allows us to experience youthful heartbreak and the pain of parental intolerance, but there’s so much joy, beauty, empathy and laughter in the film. Rees portrays a wide spectrum of queer black female experience with welcome honesty.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a experimental filmmaker and a Professor of Film at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Foster has published extensively on female directors, LGBT+ filmmakers and experimental filmmakers, topics that she regularly teaches. Foster directed The Women Who Made the Movies, (a documentary on women film directors); distributed by Women Make Movies, Inc.