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  • John Emerson

VINTAGE REVIEW: Pariah (2011) *****

Starring: Adepero Oduye, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Kim N. Wayans and Pernell Walker.

Director: Dee Rees

Country: USA

Dee Rees first brought Pariah to life in 2007 with a short film, following a seventeen-year-old lesbian looking for her place in the world. Bringing a lot of the cast with her, Rees made this into her first feature in 2011, turning Pariah into a full-length story. We follow our 'pariah' Alike (or Lee) as she explores her homosexuality and slowly starts to push back against oppressive parents to find herself. Not often do we get a story told so simply, so delicately that we can feel as connected to a character as we can to Alike, but Pariah excels, thanks to a wonderfully crafted production, stellar performances, and candid, raw story from Rees.

Pariah tackles very typical feelings when it comes to being in the closet; the notion of fitting in, crushes, not being 'gay enough' and tells stories unique to women, but carries things that can be universally felt by LGBT people everywhere, such as homophobia and moments of both acceptance and intolerance. The film is laced with many coming-of-age tropes. Struggling with self-acceptance, anger, teenage banter and the character of the older/wiser friend all abound, which isn't surprising given that coming out and coming of age themes in storytelling are so closely linked.

Sylisticaly, the film’s visual choices are clear and perfectly carried out in both camera work and editing. Everything we see reflects Alike; her struggle with how she looks, how she acts, how she feels, with everything tying back to her hidden sexuality. We get insight into a character who is almost living a double life.

Rees is a writer/director whose work focuses on queer issues and black stories, a lot of which she has described as 'semi-autobiographical'. Pariah in particular is saturated in black culture, reflecting what it's like to not just be gay, but black and gay. The culture of the movie acts as a backdrop, feeling more like a story set in a world of black culture rather than about black culture. Rees' connection to Alike's story shines through in every scene, the reality of her experience being almost tangible throughout.

Alike's story is brought to life through the performances, which are outstanding all around. But special praise must be given to Alike (Adepero Oduye) and her mother (Kim N. Wayans). Both mother and daughter were realised perfectly, and Oduye and Wayans capture the heartache and hope each character feels. Pariah is strongest in its quietest moments, where characters reflect or connect, and in those scenes we laugh alongside Alike, or empathise with her childlike embarrassment. The bond we feel with her isn't something cinema manages all too often.

Pariah isn't without its darker undertones, and it does so fearlessly. Family rejection, homelessness (which impacts queer youth at a higher rate than their peers), homophobia and religious intolerance all crop up. In doing this, the film manages to carry themes that can be universally felt by LGBT people everywhere, even while telling a story that is written about (and by) a black gay woman.

But despite its occasional negativity, overall the film is inspiring and even the more poignant moments show Alike's strength in a beautiful way.


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