Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
In my review for BlacKkKlansman last year, I mentioned how one virtue of the feature was how it was clearly made without any thought of placating or sugar-coating things for white viewers, it was about the stark reality of how racism permeates American society to this very day. A similar quality informs Dee Rees’ 2011 feature Pariah, though in this case, it’s a movie clearly made explicitly for and from a queer perspective. Pariah is a film exploring the turmoil that ensues when a family isn’t accepting of their child’s sexuality and benefits mightily from not wasting time to assure heterosexual viewers that “not all heterosexual people are like that” or similar platitudes. That’s not what Pariah is here for. Its focus is bringing specifically queer experiences to a cinematic format of storytelling and it does that marvelously.
Pariah is the tale of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old closeted Lesbian residing in New York City who, when dealing with the pressures of her overbearing Mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), prefers to be as isolated from other people as possible, even when she’s hanging out with her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Alike would much rather just continuing to eschew social commitments whenever possible, but her Mom begins to force Alike to hang out with the daughter of one of her co-workers, Bina (Aasha Davis). Though at first Alike wants nothing to do with Bina, the two begin to form a relationship that gradually sees the usually aloof Alike come out of her shell and be more sociable with Bina. Perhaps there’s even something more potent underlying the two’s prospective friendship…
For Pariah, Dee Rees has penned an utterly brilliant screenplay in numerous respects, including how well it pulls the rug out from viewer expectations to deliver an unexpected but welcome emotional gut-punch. Just when it seems like one can predict where this story is going in terms of Alike’s friendship with Bina allowing her to become more open to connecting with other people, an unforeseen complication emerges. Alike’s apex of personal joy is undercut by Bina minimizing her sexuality and actual romantic affections for Alike. Having the one person Alike can be open about her sexuality with hits Alike just as hard as it does the viewer as a seemingly tidy route to personal fulfillment is wiped off the map.
Pariah’s script is full of crushing story turns like that, ones that don’t shy away from shining a light on the experiences of growing up as a queer individual in an intolerant family and/or living space. Just look at the quietly devastating scene where Laura goes to her mother’s house to inform her that she’s finally got her G.E.D. only for her disapproving mother to never utter a word and eventually shut her front door in her daughters face. With minimal dialogue and just one scene, Pariah has fully-realized what kind of torment Laura has had to live with her whole life and the turmoil Alike has to deal with in her own home life is executed in a similarly potent manner.
Dee Rees’ writing is also great at incorporating subtle details that emphasize how even characters beyond just queer individuals like Alike are impacted by societal expectations to adhere to narrowly defined norms that tend to be a heavy informer of homophobia. For example, when Alike tells her Mother she should wear her hair in a certain way that her Mother likes, Audrey responds that she can’t simply because her husband, Arthur (Charles Parnell), wouldn’t like it. In this small moment, Pariah makes a quietly tragic connection between Audrey and the daughter she disapproves of so fiercely. Perhaps if Audrey could embrace who Alike is, she could realize that, like her, she also deals with pushing down parts of her identity simply to appease the whims of others. There’s more common ground between Mother and daughter than this particular intolerant Mother will ever be able to see.
It’s those kinds of subtle details that make Pariah such an emotionally compelling experience and the subtle details are also found in the visuals of Pariah, which served as the feature film debut of cinematographer Bradford Young. Though Pariah does not make use of the extensive instances of well-done color grading that would mark later efforts from Bradford Young like When They See Us or Solo: A Star Wars Story, his gifts as a cinematographer are certainly on display here. Such gifts are especially discernable in the subtle way Pariah’s camerawork visually reinforces the isolation of everybody in the main character’s family. Tension-filled scenes with members of this family, like a late-night living room argument between Audrey and Arthur, have the individual members of these scenes captured in either medium shots or in shots where only one character occupies a clearly visible background or foreground.
In these moments, both Bradford Young’s cinematography and Dee Rees’ direction use camerawork to emphasize just how isolated the individual members of Alike’s family are. Meanwhile, scenes with the protagonist hanging out with Bina or Laura have the Alike and any other characters she’s interacting with clearly inhabiting the same frame together. Whenever Alike is in a moment of serenity, the frame opens up and she’s able to share it with other characters, whereas a greater sense of tension in a scene calls for more claustrophobic shot choices that separate the characters. With this kind of character-informed recurring visual element in Pariah, as well as plenty of other visual facets of the production, both Bradford Young and Dee Rees are able to get inside the head of Alike and reinforce just what her existence is like on a daily basis.
Through such introspective means, as well as a welcome refusal to let people intolerant of queer individuals off with a mere slap on the wrist, Pariah clearly isn’t made as comfort food for heterosexual viewers. There is no straight white savior around for Alike to teach that queer people actually are people, instead, the focus remains on Alike, whose plight is brought to life through exceptional writing, visuals and a remarkable lead performance from Adepero Oduye. Working with a character who keeps so much of herself under wraps, Oduye is remarkable at communicating what’s going on with Alike underneath an exterior layer of “I’m fine”. Alike may shut out many of the people around (and in the case of a number of them, like Audrey, for good reason,) but Oduye makes the character’s perspective consistently clear.
This kind of performance laced with so much engrossing humanity that makes the emotionally gut-wrenching Pariah, as ridiculous as it may sound, something that might just prove reassuring to LGBTQA+ viewers. Despite the final twenty minutes of Pariah consisting of emotionally excruciating scenes of the protagonist being disconnected from her family (the final scene between Audrey and Alike, oh my God, Adepero Oduye just breaks your heart in this moment), for those queer viewers who watch it and recognize their own turmoil within the frames of Pariah, some reassurance can be found. They can see that they’re not alone in going through these experiences of isolation from the world around them and can also see a film in which a queer protagonist, instead of simply ending the film a corpse like so many queer films tend to do, actually manages to endure through it all. Pariah confronts the darkest parts of coming-of-age queer experiences that eschew exclusively pleasing heterosexual viewers very much to its benefit. By doing this, Dee Rees’ initial foray into narrative filmmaking can instead make sure the experiences of Alike are as vividly realized as possible. Pariah excels in this mission to a profound degree, including in a final scene featuring Alike reading aloud the line “I am not broken, I am free” that feels as directed to the audience itself as it does to the other characters in the scene. That line, like the movie Pariah itself, is so full of wonderful beautifully-realized truth.