#634) Pariah (2011)
OR “A Lee Grows in Brooklyn”
Directed & Written by Dee Rees
Class of 2022
The Plot: Alike, aka Lee (Adepero Oduye), is a Black teenager struggling to keep her sexual identity hidden from her parents (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans), to the disappointment of her out-and-proud best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Although Alike’s parents suspect their eldest daughter is gay, they say nothing, dismissing it as a phase and focusing instead on their deteriorating marriage. As Alike starts to develop feelings for her classmate Bina (Aasha Davis), the struggles of teenage emotions are only further exacerbated by the pressure Alike feels to conform to parents’ ideals. It’s a touching coming-of-age movie that introduced us to the filmmaking talents of Dee Rees.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of Dee Rees’ journey to making “Pariah”, calling it “a key film in modern queer cinema”. Kim Wayans’ “emotional performance” is also highlighted.
But Does It Really?: Spoiler: This post will be one of my total gush-fests. This was my first time watching “Pariah”, and I absolutely loved it. All throughout “Pariah”, I was reminded of an important rule in filmmaking: No matter what kind of movie you’re making, always tell your truth. In a remarkably confident feature film debut, Dee Rees shows us her truth about being a Black queer woman in America, and the result is an emotionally gripping, pitch-perfect movie. “Pariah” is a film that I’m embarrassed to admit was not on my radar, but I’m glad the film exists, and especially glad the NFR has inducted it, guaranteeing that future generations of film lovers will seek out this wonderful film.
Everybody Gets One: Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Dee Rees initially had zero filmmaking aspirations, until her job in brand management found her on a shoot for a Dr. Scholl’s commercial. She enrolled in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and was mentored by, among others, Spike Lee, who hired Rees as an intern on his film “Inside Man” (Lee would subsequently be an executive producer on “Pariah”). It was also during her time at NYU that Rees came out to her parents, and she wrote “Pariah” as a way of working through how she was feeling at the time. For her graduate thesis, Rees took the first third of her “Pariah” script and made it into a short film, with actors Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, and Sahra Mellesse appearing in both the short and the eventual film.
Wow, That’s Dated: Although there isn’t too much that dates “Pariah” to the late 2000s, we do get plenty of flip-phones, plus a passing reference to the ancient art of CD burning.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Pariah”, but the film did receive its share of critics awards, and won the John Cassavetes Award (best film made for under $500,000) at the Independent Spirit Awards.
- Like many an indie before and after, “Pariah” was shot on a shoestring budget. In fact, at no point during production did Rees and her team have the entire budget at the same time, instead applying for various grants, and then applying for more once that money ran out. In addition, because they believed in the film’s importance, the crew worked on the film for free, only getting paid their rates after “Pariah” got a distribution deal, which was never guaranteed.
- One of Dee Rees’ production hacks bears repeating for its sheer brilliance. The “Pariah” team could not afford a location manager for on-location shooting, so Rees hired a realtor, who showed her a three-story brownstone in Brooklyn that wasn’t selling (this being the Recession and all). Rees rented the brownstone for two months, with each story serving as a different character’s apartment. Genius!
- The moment that got me hooked on this movie was watching Lee, on the bus coming home from a lesbian bar, changing into more “feminine” clothes before she gets home. This simple moment told me everything I needed to know about this movie and its protagonist, and I was feeling for Lee every second after that.
- Shoutout to this whole ensemble, especially Adepero Oduye, who convincingly plays a teenager even though she was in her early 30s during production! Co-star Aasha Davis was in her late 30s, and adheres to a version of my patented “Ponytail Stratagem” called the “Headband Subterfuge”: the use of a headband to make yourself appear younger. Bina’s rarely without one in this film. Side note: Aasha Davis is currently a regular on “Drunk History”!
- This may be the first NFR movie to feature a strap-on. I say “may” because I still haven’t seen “Boys Don’t Cry”, the only other movie on this list that could realistically have one.
- One of the things I noticed about the acting in “Pariah” is – interestingly enough – connected to its cinematography. The film is shot mostly in close-ups and mediums. There are very few wide-shots, giving the whole film an intimate, borderline claustrophobic feel. This of course means that the acting can’t be too broad, as it would appear overblown when shown on a big screen. The “Pariah” cast across the board does a wonderful job of playing their characters with realistic subtleties.
- Shoutout to Kim Wayans, wonderfully powerful as Audrey, and the first member of the Wayans family to make the NFR. I predict Marlon will be the next one thanks to his work in “Requiem for a Dream”. Kim also gets the only line in the movie that got a genuine laugh from me: “Too much lip gloss”.
- Two notes on Charles Parnell: 1) With his rich, commanding tone, it is no surprise he has found a steady career in voiceover and 2) He most recently appeared in “Top Gun: Maverick” which, since my “Top Gun” post from two years ago, has finally been released and is like the greatest movie of all time or something like that I guess.
- I didn’t take a lot of notes during my viewing of “Pariah” – always a good indication that I’m enjoying the movie – but there was something even more incredible about this viewing for me. I didn’t feel my usual urge afterwards to do a lot of research or over-contextualize the film for this blog post. Part of that is because the film is so recent, with admittedly a shorter legacy. But more importantly, the film felt so real to me. It was alive. I believed these characters as real people, and felt for them in their struggles. I bought the film’s reality so much that I didn’t want to pull back the curtain and learn about the actors or the process, and it was a few days before I finally felt up to the task. I can’t think of another movie that had this kind of effect on me.
- Overall, my reaction to “Pariah” was the same as Mrs. Alvarado’s reaction to Lee’s poem at the end: All I could really do when the movie ended was nod my head and say “Yeah…yeah…” The film said everything it needed to say, and said it beautifully. Also, at 86 minutes, thank you Dee Rees for reminding us all that great movies don’t need to be so goddamn long.
- A few takeaways from the end credits: “Pariah” is one of the few movies to credit its background extras, and is most likely the first NFR movie to be partially funded by Kickstarter.
- “Pariah” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, with Focus Features picking up the distribution rights, giving the film a limited release of 24 theaters in December 2011. “Pariah” was only the second Black queer film by a woman to receive a major release (the first was fellow NFR entry “The Watermelon Woman”). While the film did okay in its run, it was a critical success, and even got a shoutout from Meryl Streep at that year’s Golden Globes! In the last decade-plus, “Pariah” consistently appears on critics list of great films by queer directors.
- Dee Rees’ next film was the HBO movie “Bessie” (with Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith). Her next theatrical film was 2017’s “Mudbound” which earned Rees an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay, the first Black woman ever to be so honored.
- The 2010s saw an uptick in more diverse films getting made and recognized, including such notable films about Black queer identity as “Tangerine” and “Moonlight”. While we still have a long way to go making sure Black queer voices are heard in American films, “Pariah” is one of the movies that helped open the door a little wider.