Pariah Tackles Important and Personal Subjects

Rees film deserves broader audience.

PARIAH  (2010)
Written and Directed by Dee Rees
Chicken and Egg Pictures, 86 mins. R
* * *

Alike (Andrepro Oduye) is a 17-year-old black girl finishing her high school education in an edgy New York City neighborhood. She’s kind, shy, loves poetry, and is a straight-A student. The problem is that her grades are the only thing straight about her. Alike (pronounced Ah-lee’-kay) knows what she is—a virginal Butch lesbian longing for sexual encounters she’s too guilt-ridden to initiate. She lives with her sister and parents, the latter of whom entrap her in a closet of inner frustration and outer role playing. Her father, Mack (Raymond Anthony Thomas) is a New York City detective with a military-like demeanor, and her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), loves Jesus to the point where she is shut down to human affection. Audrey lives a life circumscribed by what she thinks God demands of her—an austere respectability that makes her cold to her daughters, her husband, and her coworkers, all of whom quietly drift from her.

For Alike, “coming out” is out of the question, so she lives a double life, leaving the apartment each morning as Alike dressed in costumes picked out by her mother, then ducks into a school bathroom to become “Lee” by donning muscle shirts, a doo rag, hip hop baggy jeans, and a backward ball cap. Her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker) is both what she’d like to be, but a warning of its cost. Laura is openly Butch and secretly takes Alike to gay clubs with her, but she’s also working on her GED and lives hand-to-mouth with her sister because she left school when she was tossed from her home because of her sexual preferences. So Alike plods on with few friends and no lovers. Audrey blindly foists church, inappropriate clothing, and “suitable” friends upon Alike, all of which add to her frustration—until she’s forced to spend time with a girl from a “good Christian home,” Bina (Aasha Davis). I suspect you can figure out what happens next! Don’t get too smug, though, because there’s quite a bit in this film that isn’t predictable.

Director and writer Dee Rees, who admits that some of the film is autobiographical, serves up a black family drama, the likes of which we seldom see. She uses the character of Audrey to highlight a searing contradiction within the black community—the same churches that led the civil rights movement are among the most bigoted forces in all of American society insofar as acceptance of gays and lesbians goes. Rees also delves nicely into the sometimes catty world of high schoolers, a group that plays with emotions, identities, and each other with a casual and clueless cruelty.

This is an independent film and it has the virtues and drawbacks of such a project. Kudos go to Rees for giving us a fresh look at the inner city, families, and sexual identity. Also bold was her casting choice. Oduye is not a product of New York’s mean streets; she’s Nigerian born and had a very solid childhood. Most intriguing of all, although she convincingly plays 17-year-old Alike, she is actually 33. And Davis, who plays Bina as a cute-as-a-button spoiled teen, is 32. The small budget shows up in a thin script that could use some doctoring, in the claustrophobic sets and cut-rate lighting, and in the stiff acting of secondary characters.

 It’s by no means a perfect film, but it’s a very good one that deserved a far bigger audience than it got upon release, despite raves as festivals such as Sundance. One problem was its ridiculous R rating—cuddling and girl-on-girl kissing is as racy as this film gets. Therein, in my view, lies the problem. The film got an R rating because it had lesbian characters, pure and simple. The film lacked appeal in the black community because it portrays a forbidden topic in a positive way. And most non-whites haven’t seen it for exactly the same reason. You should.—Rob Weir

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