Pariah (2011): 'I'm not running, I'm choosing.'

Director Dee Rees' debut feature-length about learning to live for yourself

"Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs"

When Dee Rees' refreshingly unique film Pariah opens with the words of black feminist pioneer Audre Lorde at its font I know I am about to watch something that speaks to me. Just to see Audre's name fade onto the screen already feels like a moment, a moment that usually comes after a good fifteen minutes into a film when you realise that what you are watching is going to touch you, that you have passed that transformative cut-off point where you know that for the next hour and a half or so, be it subtitled arthouse foreign film or polished sci-fi, you're going to get what feels like truth, so you just sink into the rest of the feature ready to soak up all it has to give you. This is how I felt about Pariah.

You may think that judging a film on its opening quote alone might seem a little rash, and fair enough I can see that line of view, I haven't seen any action yet, but the next thing to grace the screen confirms my wide-eyed optimism; a majestic, bedazzled, besequined, natural-haired black pole dancer wrapped around the pole upside down to the musical stylings of KHIA's "My Neck, My Back" as protagonist Aliké (Adepero Oduye) watches slack-jawed. I am sold. In less than a minute I have seen more of a representation of me than I have on TV for months. That is not to say that I pole dance (I have the upper body strength of a t-rex) or that I am, by any stretch of the imagination, a Lorde-level revolutionary; what I mean is that I am already seeing pieces of my own identity unfurl into the fabric of this movie. I am watching a film written and directed by a black woman, starring a black woman, garnished with the words of a black female writer I admire, to a sound that could have been handpicked by me by, you guessed it, a black woman...Do you know how rarely I can say that?

Pariah follows the story of seventeen year old Aliké as she tries to hide her queer identity from her emotionally stunted, middle-class parents and struggles to find self-expression when so much of who she is is being stifled. What I find interesting about the film is that at no point is there a scene in which Aliké doubts her sexuality or tries to force herself to be straight, and I think that that's important. Female queerness is too often fetishised in mainstream media, and can be treated like it is confusing pitstop on the way to heterosexual monogamy. I love how Pariah challenges those expectations - Aliké has a clear understanding of who she is; she knows it's not her identity that is the problem, but how to assimilate that identity into her external world. Pariah's focus is primarily on learning to negotiate your space in life and coming of age, so while it ticks all the boxes for representing me, its content is not so 'niche' that only a black or gay audience would enjoy it. Adepero Oduye's portrayal of Aliké is sensitive and powerful and if you need further convincing, she was even namechecked by Meryl in her Golden Globe Acceptance speech last year! Also worth a mention is Kim Wayans' emotive performance as Aliké's strained, 'take your shoes off before you come in the house' mother.  

Kim Wayans (Left) and Adepero Oduye (Right) star in Pariah (2011)

Pariah is a film that though harrowing at times, ultimately feels  carthartic, it begins starkly with a somewhat harsh palette of reds and blues under black light but as the film progresses and Aliké opens up to the world, the colours onscreen, along with Aliké herself allow themselves to radiate the light and warmth needed to recover; this warmth stays with you as the credits roll, and like film in its entirety, it is healing.

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz