Refusing Invisibility: ‘Pariah’ Challenges Social and Religious Norms

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Eye on Culture: Movie Review

Although only showing in a handful of theaters, Pariah has created significant buzz amongst critics, cultural commentators, and the world of social networking. At one level the interest and celebration reflects the importance of the film as a site of intervention, as evidence of the power and potential of filmmaking. Nelson George, in a recent New York Times article, discussed Pariah in relationship to several other important films (Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda” and Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky”), arguing that seen together these films are evidence of a resurgence of African American films. Similarly, Salamishah Tillet, in “20 years of Black Lesbian Film” argues that Pariah stands on the shoulders of a long history of black lesbian filmmaking; yet she points to inherent possibilities with this film:

This alone gives a new generation of black lesbian filmmakers, such as Tiona McClodden, director of the 2008 documentary Black/Womyn: Conversations With Lesbians of African Descent, reason to be excited. “After Pariah,” McClodden said in an interview, “it might be a little easier for more of these types of film to be made. I hope it gets even more recognition and award nominations. So far there hasn’t been a show of something that has been commercially successful in this genre, so this is why Pariah is so important.”

It is not the number of films or the heightened visibility, but rather than the effort to reflect on black identity, to examine the intersections of race-class-sexuality-gender, and to otherwise expand the definition of what it means to be black in the twenty-first century. George describes Pariah as “not simply … a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the mini-movement of young black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what ‘black film’ can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.” Pariah does indeed do all those things and so much more.

Pariah, a semi-autobiographical film from writer and director Dee Rees, tells the story of Alike (played brilliantly by Adepero Oduye), a shy 17-year old girl living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Focusing on sexual exploration, her relationship with friends, and her sense of identity, Pariah is really a story of Alike coming out as a lesbian to her family. With a supportive sister (Sahra Mellesse), a father (Charles Parnell) in denial, and a mother (Kim Wayans) openly uncomfortable with the prospect of her daughter being a lesbian, Pariah gives voice to the difficulty of coming out. The film specifically focuses on the relationship between Alike and her mother, whose religious beliefs and adherence to traditional gender roles (she demands that Alike wear more feminine clothes) ground her contempt for Alike’s sexuality. Whereas so much of popular discourse depicts homophobia as unique to the black community, Pariah locates it within the confines of religious conservatism.

Giving voice to the hegemonically erased experiences of the black middle-class, black female youth, and black lesbians, Pariah refuses the trap of the politics of invisibility. It refuses to reduce identity to simple signifiers, yet its deployment of hair politics, its use of the landscape of Brooklyn, its representation of spoken word artistry elucidate the powerful way that black identity matters. A film of subtlety and brilliant acting performances, Pariah offers a counternarrative and a level of complexity to the politics of representation uncommon within mainstream popular culture.

In exploring the dialectics between race, class, gender, and sexuality, Pariah examines the depths of “Otherness.” The film begins with a definition of a pariah, as “a person without status. A rejected member of society. An outcast.” Alike navigates many different worlds, seemingly unable to meet the demands and expectations of society and its members. At home, her sexuality and her gendered identity (her clothing choices) conflict with the demands and expectations of her parents. At the club, her lack of aggressiveness and her perceived limited confidence, positions her outside of peers. At school, she sits alone, as the “popular” girls gossip about both the boys and the “AGs” – the aggressive girls.

“The two worlds that ‘Pariah’ visits might as well be parallel universes, although they are within blocks of each other,” writes Stephen Holden in his New York Times review. “The raunchy women’s dance club to which Alike is drawn has nothing in common with her pious household, where a stiff, artificial cheer and tense formality pass for familial togetherness. Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life between the two while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” Yet, Alike is of course not the only pariah within the film.

Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike’s best friend, lives with her sister because she was kicked out of her house presumably because of her mom’s homophobia. Even Alike’s mom, whose pious and conservative demeanor renders her as an outsider, as alienated from her daughter, her husband, and her peers at work, is somewhat of a pariah. Summer M, at Black Youth Project, argues in fact that Audrey continues the historic representations of black mothers as “cold, irrational, and incapable of unconditional love.” Yet, in imagining her through a lens of middle-class and Christian respectability, and providing her with some depth, the film constructs Audrey as a different sort of pariah.

While a story of “simplicity,” Pariah offers a complex representation of identity. Evident in the narrative and in Alike’s recitation of her spoken word poetry, Pariah represents her as a trapped butterfly; her beautiful identity is confined by the demands that she behave and act in accordance with identity of a young, middle-class, heterosexual black woman. In one of the more powerful scenes from the film, Alike announces: “Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise. For even breaking is opening. I am broken. I am open. See the love shine in through my cracks. See the light shine out through me. My spirit takes journey. My spirit takes flight. And I am not running. I am choosing.” In other words, like a butterfly, Alike chooses to break free from the confines of her parents’ expectations, the homophobia of society, and even the requirements for acceptance within middle-class religious communities. She refuses their definition of the politics of respectability just as Dee Rees refuses the systemic erasure of black lesbian youth from the mainstream. Choosing her own path, her own flight, Alike’s beauty shines through with clarity and inspiration. Emphasizing her power and agency, Pariah represents Alike and her sense of identity as beautiful.

One of the most interesting and telling aspects of Pariah is the ways it uses music. Including a range of artists, from Khia, Daisha, and Kandi Cole to Honeychild Coleman, Audio Dyslexia, and Tamar-Khali. The efforts to highlight “underground” female artists reflect the efforts of the movie to make visible those experiences, voices, and identities that are ubiquitously rendered invisible. Yet, the music selection is telling in other ways, as the film disentangles black contemporary identity from hip-hop, arguing that black identity and artistic contributions include, but are not limited by hip-hop. The film includes Afro-Punk artists, those who embody a rock aesthetic, and a more R&B sound. The hegemonic inscription of black identity through mainstream rap music reflects the narrow constructions of blackness, the systemic definition of blackness through narrow notions of authenticity. The film explores and explodes this in both its musical choice and its narrative direction. In one scene, Alike and Bina (Aasha Davis) listen and discuss music; Alike is shocked that her presumably “normal” and “mainstream” friend listens to rock music. The efforts to disentangle social location (class, race, and identity) from music are emblematic of the larger purpose of the film, one that disrupts notions of authenticity.

Pariah leaves much unsaid. While clearly part of the overall effort is to focus the story on Alike and give voice to her identity formation, it challenges the belief that the viewers are entitled to every piece of information. Viewers are made to believe that Arthur is having an affair; it also hints at conflict between his relationship and Audrey stemming from past choices. Similarly, viewers are never told why Laura leaves home or the relationship between Laura’s sister and her mother. We know very little here, not so much because it is not important or illustrative to the story or character development, but because it is information that viewers are not entitled to know. It points to the power of the film, one that leads viewers to see and experience, yet doesn’t give audiences full-access defined by spectacle and the powerful gaze of the audience.

In contemporary America, black lesbian youth are so often imagined as pariahs, positioned as outsiders and Others in a myriad of context, including the Hollywood imagination. It provides depth and inhumanity so often reserved for whiteness. Described brilliantly by Summer M, “Pariah is an incredibly rich film that explodes caricatures of blackness and sexuality through its commitment to expressing the humanity underneath those identity markers.” With its powerful story, amazing acting, and beautiful cinematography, Pariah challenges the systemic erasure and dehumanization commonplace to society.

 

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris