Black History Month: 'Pariah Review'

Posted 13 October 2017 about Black History Month and Pariah.

Pariah

Pariah, written and directed by Dee Rees, is a coming-of-age story about a young queer black teen as she fumbles through her journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Masterfully portrayed by Adepero Oduye, Alike is a talented 17-year-old girl from a middle-class conservative family. Effectively living a double life, Alike attempts to balance the person she is at home with the person she is becoming. She is left with a difficult choice: embrace her true nature and risk losing the love of her family, or remain as she is, stunted and unable to flourish.

Going into this film, we expect to see a young girl struggling to come to grips with her sexual identity. Far from being confused, Alike seems comfortable in her sexuality and we quickly learn that her struggle is with reconciling that fact with her surroundings. Coming from a blue collar, church going nuclear family, there are clear expectations placed upon her to be feminine. Her father (Charles Parnell) is a distant workaholic, her mother (Kim Wayans) is an overbearing control freak and underneath their everyday façade, the family unit is unravelling at the seams. Alike’s conversations with her mother are often strained. At the core of their relationship is Alike’s wish to be seen as she is, and her mother’s refusal to do so. This is highlighted when her mother forces her to wear an almost comically girly pink blouse with Alike protesting that, “this isn’t me.”

Although Alike is desperate for acceptance she recognises the fragility of her domestic life. The likelihood of a revelation in her case is unlikely to be met with anything but disownment. The film is an apt depiction of the painful hostility some members of the black community have towards LGBTQI people. A moment of real poignancy comes when a young lesbian is verbally abused by a man in a liquor store. The exchange is callus and there is an inherent violence in the way she is spoken to. Two other men, one of them Alike’s father, look on and although there is an implied dismissal of the man’s behaviour, neither raise their voice in the girl’s defence. Scenes like this one are an unfortunate reality for many LGBTQI people.

The plot is unremarkable in and of itself, but the film is elevated by a charming script and some strong performances. It passes between moments of genuine humour and agonising rawness with relative ease. Rees achieved an element of realness with her script and her character development, which makes the film undeniably relatable. It is beautifully shot and there is a sense of real intimacy with the characters. Silhouettes and light reflections mingle to shape a unique aesthetic. This juxtaposition places the internal world of the characters against the backdrop of their environments and highlights the conflicts that lie therein. Extreme close-ups centring on the back of the neck create a feeling of vulnerability, which is underpinned by the powerful performances of Oduye and Kim Wayans.

The true beauty of the film is its multifaceted approach to its subject matter. It deftly walks us through the many different ways in which a person can be an outcast in their community, their workplace or even their own home. Far from being a film only centred on sexuality, it is also an intense family drama. It is a story about people struggling inside the prisons of their own making, afraid to face their true selves. Each character’s struggle is defined by the social constructs that confine and suffocate them. This metaphor is verbalised in Alike’s poetry. She speaks about a butterfly that is trapped inside its own cocoon. By the close of the film, it is the breaking of these constructs that holds the path to redemption.

Pariah showed on Sunday 8 October 2017, as part of the Showroom's Black History Month season. This year, the season has been created in collaboration with Sheffield Melanin Festival, and includes a range of multi-arts events including seminars, workshops, an art exhibition, documentary and fiction films. Coming up in the programme: the Black Blossoms exhibition, a Grace Jones documentary + live satellite discussion with Grace herself, lots of Saturday Club family screenings - including an autism friendly screening of Moana, and the stunning Maya Angelou documentary 'Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise'.

Roisin McDaid

Roisin has a BA/Hons in Drama and Theatre and is an aspiring writer. Twitter: @roshmcd Read more posts by Roisin McDaid

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