Refusing Invisibility: 'Pariah' Challenges Social and Religious Norms
By David J. Leonard
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 “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.