Pariah (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Pariah (2011)

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Alike is struggling to find out who she is.  At night, she goes out to clubs that let her embrace her homosexuality but struggles to communicate how she feels.  During the day, her mother grows more hostile and suspicious about Alike's lifestyle, and pushes Alike to a lifestyle she doesn't want.  Pariah is written and directed by Dee Rees, and stars Adepero Oduye.

Solo performanceKyle and I weren't able to get to Spike Lee's Girl 6 in time for today, so that got my mind to thinking about what else to write about.  One of the things that we haven't mentioned much in our write-ups about his films is the opportunities Spike has tried to provide people since he got his career running.  Because of Spike film unions got more diverse, he provided many students with opportunities to intern on his films, and he tries to find new and interesting filmmakers to support.

So I'm using this break to write about Dee Rees' Pariah, a film that Spike served as Executive Producer on, and in no way can we see his fingerprints on the final product.  Rees worked on Pariah for years, initially telling the story as a short film in 2007 and then expanding on the core into a stunning feature-length project four years later.  It's so stunning that I am still shocked it did not embed itself into public discourse, especially considering the national conversation that ramped up about gay rights in 2011.

The pure confidence of Pariah is almost overwhelming and has a gripping, emotionally confident opening scene.  We meet Alike (Adepero Oduye) at a dark, colorful club and as the skeletal beat of Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" kicks in and a greenish-gold stripper descends into the thick color like a beacon.  Oduye's performance is immediately impressive, wearing an expression equal parts confusion, delight, and a bit of fear as she's pushed forward to tip the stripper.  Uncomfortable by her friend's urging she retreats to a corner of the club where she sits alone and we see her think through what she wants to do next.

Pariah is working with a deep, lush palette that adds texture to the dark spaces Alike goes to for comfort.

Pariah is working with a deep, lush palette that adds texture to the dark spaces Alike goes to for comfort.

What I'm first struck by, and continues throughout all of Pariah, is the masterful use of color.  Typically when we talk about colorful films there's an ingrained expectation that they are also bright.  Pariah mostly takes place in low-light, using a special camera that cinematographer Bradford Young rigged together to capture the variance of color in the dark.  Normal cameras, it turns out, have never been especially good at recording darker tones, including skin tones, so Young fixed that problem with his setup.

The result is a lush, deep palette that makes Pariah look like an oil painting at times as the purples and reds of Alike's desire conflict with the natural light that shines on many of her conversations with her parents.  Rees typically has Young film Alike from behind, to the side, or in reflection as Alike is still uncertain about how to look at herself, but is more certain about how she feels.  I love the tension between the broad honesty of Alike in the midst of those deep colors and the way she has to hide in plain sight when speaking to her parents in natural light.

As frequently gorgeous as Pariah is, it is anchored by Rees' exquisite screenplay that emphasizes the humor and discomfort of self-discovery and avoids easy villains.  One of the running themes throughout Pariah, and the source of that humor, is how gender and sexuality are two things that have biological influences but are performed behaviors.  Time and again there are situations where Alike is expected to perform a certain way, be it being a bit more aggressive with her lesbian friends or put on a blouse and behave more like a lady when she's with her mother.  Rees doesn't center this conflict on Alike alone, and fills Alike's story of discovery with small exchanges that take place with her parents.

The best of these is when Alike's father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), watches a friend of his taunt a stranger by asking if she wants to be called sir or ma'am.  The stranger humiliates Arthur's rude friend by basically playing a better "man" than he can, boasting of her sexual prowess, and then dismissing his rudeness with confidence.  By playing the part of a "man" better, she transforms the sexual terrain the stranger is trying to taunt her on, and by refusing to answer his question does not cater exactly to being male or female, but a confident person of her own invention.

Rees does not write any villains into Pariah, and even the loving relationships are between complex people who each have their own value system.

Rees does not write any villains into Pariah, and even the loving relationships are between complex people who each have their own value system.

Even if these asides don't seem related to Alike's identity struggle at first glance they all play into her transformation with subtlety.  An early film moment finds Alike uncomfortable with a strap-on sex tool that she acquired, and is referenced when Alike doesn't want to put on the blouse her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), purchased and her father says to, "Leave it untucked."  There is no moment in the film that has a single meaning, with this exchange referencing both Alike's experimentation, Audrey's reserved suspicion about Alike, and Arthur's confidence that his daughter knows best even if he can't completely disavow himself of his prejudice.

In a less assured movie, Audrey would be a devil to Alike, but Rees sees her as one more person whose prejudice gets in the way of a happy family life.  But Pariah is confident, and allows the messy family dynamic to evolve into something that may not leave everyone happy, but with the most room to grow.  Pariah is an exquisite film which rejects easy climaxes and straightforward emotional development as there is no simple solution to Alike's problems but to find out what works best for her.  She's strong and intelligent, and leaves the film with a firm sense of who she wants to be.

I love Pariah.  The deep colors and excellent performances have stuck with me in a way few films have.  Sometimes, when I wonder what to do with myself, I remember the image of Alike on the subway looking at her reflection and switching from one performance to the next.  Then I think of Alike at the end, no longer needing the assurance of that reflected image as she faces the sunlight.  She made a choice.  It reminds me I can do the same.

Tail - PariahPariah (2011)

Screenplay written and directed by Dee Rees.
Starring Adepero Oduye, Charles Parnell, and Kim Wayans.

Posted by Andrew

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