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'.