Finally, vacation! After a crazy semester I've gotten a moment to breathe and catch up on all the things I have been wanting to do for months; clean out and organize my apartment, spend time with family, tackle my reading list, rent all of the films I have been missing. I just finished Dee Rees' PARIAH and so enjoyed it, I plan on screening it for my Womanhood and Gender class next semester. PARIAH is a raw, painful, and at times, hilarious story of a young girl struggling to find her identity, in the midst of a family and community who continually try to determine for her what she should be.
In PARIAH, 17 year-old Alike, known as Lee, has no trouble coming to terms with her homosexuality itself. This is made abundantly clear in the opening scene, where she gazes up at a skillful pole dancer spinning splayed-leg to the tune of Khia's "My Neck, My Back" (anyone remember that sweet little diddy from high school house parties?) Her problem is finding comfort in being her, whoever that is, and revealing who she is to those around her. Her struggles play out in her wardrobe throughout the film. Between home, school, and club she tries out identities: baggy jeans, logo shirts and baseball caps for hanging out with her butch best friend Laura, angel shirts and earrings with her mother, looped bright scarves as she gets closer to the pretty, funky Bina. By the end of the film we see a synthesis of these styles as she comes into her own. It all happens to an incredible, all female soundtrack of poetry and Afro-punk (Google Tamar-Kali today). The film's funniest moment comes in one item she tries on in an attempt to impress a girl who likes them "rougher," but I'll let you all watch it to see that. Despite the laughs, the moment is also a painful metaphor for the discomfort of Lee's attempt to sit into the performances of gender and sexuality that she is pressured into.
With close-up, handheld shots, long periods of time with no music, the real sounds and look and speech patterns of Brooklyn, and understated performances, the film's reality helps to pull you deeply in to its humanity. Charles Parnell is great as the flawed but loving father, and there is a kitchen scene where he and Lee both hide their secrets from one another that is subtle and moving but it is the women that dominate this film. Adepero Oduye is perfect as Lee, layered, complex, vulnerable, touch, unsure, resolute when needed. Kim Wayans is powerful as a wife and mother trying to hold her family, and its image together. While her insistence on tradition and Christianity in her household and femininity in her daughters make her, necessarily, an antagonistic force in the film, you can't help but feel for her pain as her husband draws away from her and the fact of her daughter's lesbianism becomes not a suspicion or n inner, unspoken knowledge but an unavoidable truth. It is a truth that the characters manage to talk around throughout the film, the family insinuating, questioning, challenging, teasing about Lee's sexuality without ever saying the word. This avoidance is in sharp contrast to the blunt straightforwardness of Lee's best friend Laura, whose combination of bravado and touching vulnerability make hers my favorite performance in the film. Watching interviews with actress Pernell Walker, who is feminine and bubbly, I was blown away by the transformation. There are smaller roles of Lee and Laura's sisters, but the scenes with them are some of my favorites, and remind me of YELLING TO THE SKY in their realistic portrayal of the delicate interplay of conflict, teasing, and fierce loyalty of sister relationships. I also love the brief appearances of the no-bullshit AP English teacher who pushes Lee to develop her voice. It is a fictional character, but reminds me of the kind of teacher that I would like to be.
PARIAH is a story of family, friendship, love, identity. Anyone should be able to empathize with Lee's struggle to free herself from the boxes that others have built for her. Though it does not scream any statements, its complex portrayals of characters like Lee and Laura and their experiences with love, rejection, and family estrangement make it an excellent addition to ongoing conversations about the psychological and emotional costs of sexism and homophobia.
This film reminds me that when it comes to black media arts, as barren as the landscape may seem when we look at major motion picture releases and radio play, there is nothing to despair about. I loved the extra features on this disk, which were short but gave great insight to the storytelling process. There are also excellent extras, interviews, and reflections on the website. Check this out and keep an eye out for Dee Rees, I eagerly await her next project.