‘Pariah’ Proves There’s an Audience–and a Hunger–for Real Stories

Dee Rees's critically acclaimed film about a young, black lesbian wrestling with multiple identities turns on the radical assertion that there's no one way to be young, or black, or queer.

By Jamilah King Jan 03, 2012

There’s a scene in Dee Rees’s debut feature film "Pariah" to which almost anyone who’s survived an awkward adolescence can relate. Alike, the film’s 17-year-old protagonist, sits in her high school’s hallway within earshot of a group of pretty, popular girls talking about the things that pretty, popular girls tend to talk about: who kicked it with whom at what party. The conversation creeps around to "AGs" (a slang term, for lesbians who identify as "aggressive"–think butch, but more black). One of the girls casually mentions that some AGs, like Alike, are cute–if only she’d be harder.

Moments like these help bring home one of the Rees’s biggest achievements with the critically acclaimed film: turning what was once taboo (openly gay teens) into something that’s painfully ordinary (kids struggling to fit in). "Pariah," which opened with an impressive limited release this past weekend, is Rees’s semi-autobiographic tale of a shy but determined teenage poet growing up in middle class Brooklyn. Alike is comfortable enough with her sexuality, but she’s still uncertain of how to wear it. Tougher still is the work that must be done to bring her family and closest friends into the fold, especially when they’re already waging battles against their own personal demons. The film hinges on the belief that there’s no one way to be young, or black, or queer. And while it’s a struggle to come into any identity, those fights are always punctuated by moments of resilience and triumph.

What’s special about "Pariah" is that it, for the most part, successfully tells many stories at once. Alike’s struggle to live openly with her family is the most prominent. But there’s also her socially isolated mother and her bitter, but protective father. And there are the stories that turn on the underreported brutality hundreds of thousands of queer youth of color face each year.

Take Alike’s relationship with her best friend, Laura. More club hopper than bookworm, Laura’s living a hard scrabble life with an older sister after being disowned by her mother. She’s working a low-wage job, studying to earn her GED and spends her weekends on the Greenwich Village piers, which have been a popular hang out spot for queer youth of color for generations. The film’s pier scenes are tinged by melancholy. And rightfully so. A 2007 study found that 20 percent to 40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In New York City, that rate has remained a steady 40 percent. Too many of those young people count on the piers to find both emotional and physical homes. And even there, they have had to organize and fight for their basic right to space.

These aren’t happy-go-lucky tales of gay assimilation. They aren’t the cute, openly gay assistant on a TV sitcom, or the mischievous, two-timing boyfriend vilified by Oprah Winfrey. These are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives amid brutal and highly racialized realities: harassment, violence, chronic unemployment; the frustration that comes with clinging onto a shaky black middle class life, and the sometimes debilitating effort to climb out of poverty. They aren’t the prettiest of tales, but they exist and need to be told.

"Pariah" is one of a handful of recent independent black films that tells them. But it does so in an endearing way that’s filled with jokes and embarrassingly awkward moments. There’s a lighthearted innocence that permeates the film, one that emanates more hope than hardship. In a multimedia piece for the New York Times, cultural critic Nelson George put it this way:

"Pariah" is important, not simply as 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.

What’s most exciting about this mini-movement is that it’s been pushed along by a groundswell of community support. Folks who’ve long been marginalized in media are stepping behind and in front of the camera, or putting their hard earned money together to help pay for it.

After ditching a career in corporate marketing, Rees enrolled in New York University’s filmmaking program and studied under Spike Lee. "Pariah" first got attention back in 2007, when it debuted as a 30-minute short film. Focus Features picked it up early last year right after it had an enormously successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The big names signing on helped it along, but it was on-the-ground work that gave the film its real momentum. Over 200 people donated a total of over $11,000 to the film’s Kickstarter campaign last January. It’s a relatively paltry sum when compared to Hollywood’s annual multi-million dollar blockbusters. But it’s proof that hundreds of people are willing to pay for something different.

Rees summed up the importance of that in George’s Times piece: "There are different ways to be," she said. "There is no monolithic black identity. My film is less about coming out than who you are and how to be that person. I think we want an extreme diversity of images and voices. And it is not enough to have a lot of films in one year, but to have an ongoing supply of films."