There’s a rush of humor through Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011) that sits easily with the torment. Thus is the life of poets—raging interior, but, of course, there is a world outside. For Lee, or Alike (Adepero Oduye), this means outside of the family home—which is darkened, repressive in its forced middle-class rhythms—and outside of school, which offers moments of relief and plenty of anxiety in its corridors filled with notes of gossip and flirtation. None of it is out-out, though. It’s a state of being that Lee makes urgent and verbal, as in get it out. She shares her writing with a sympathetic, celery-munching teacher who side-eyes her student’s phoned-in efforts at lyricism, knows she can “go deeper.” Rees’s camera looks at Lee yet allows her the boundary she has provisionally demarcated. Good poetry isn’t like that; the words don’t wait on your readiness, don’t let you get your shit together before they come tumbling forth.
Lee does her best to keep it all quiet. So it’s not surprising when she’s silent at the strip club. In the first scene in Pariah, a lesson in disorientation, the camera literally flips the perspective—the dancer falls up the pole, throwing the viewer out of any sense of familiarity with the scene. Lee looks on, all turned around. It’s full-on. It’s funny that she’s a meek stud at the midnight hour, can’t score a date because she gets too distracted by the spectacle of it all. Funny that her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who has an admirable ease and confidence, is deep into heavy-eye-contact slow dancing with a femme when Lee anxiously calls her off to make curfew. Funny that Lee reads off the names of girls in her study group to Laura, trying to prove she got numbers tonight. Carefully wedged into all that talk between the two friends is an essential lie—that Lee is who she is outside of the friendship. Lee can’t quite seem to manage where she does and doesn’t fit in. Laura’s teasing isn’t exactly razzing between friends, instead speaking to a fundamental split, or binary, that Lee is unable to accommodate—between school life and nightlife, between family and friends, between flagrantly gay and rigidly straight.
Pariah, Rees’s first feature, premiered at Sundance in 2011. It was an immediate critical hit, swiftly cementing a place in the queer film canon as an ambitious and lyrical debut that added nuance and specificity to lesbian and Black narratives while establishing Rees as an important new voice in independent film. It won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for a dramatic film at Sundance and, upon its commercial release, received acclaim in major publications like the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. Rees and producer Nekisa Cooper won the Film Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award, and Rees also grabbed the Gotham Independent Film Award for breakthrough director. The film was recognized for its craft and performances by Black organizations such as the African American Film Critics Association, the Black Film Critics Circle, and the NAACP. Oduye’s performance in particular earned high marks, including a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination, and peaking with a breathless shout-out by Meryl Streep at the year’s Golden Globes ceremony. Pariah quickly became a benchmark for where queer coming-of-age cinema could go with a film public that was slowly paying more attention to Black independent storytelling, particularly about Black female sexuality. In the years following Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, and—crucially—Cheryl Dunye’s lesbian rom-com The Watermelon Woman, there was finally an emerging interest in films by and about Black American women, in all their variety and complexity. In 2011, Pariah stood out as a film with an undeniable voice—not merely a depiction of events but a cinematic crafting of closely held experience.
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