Revisiting Seminal LGBTQ Film Pariah

Journalist and critic Valerie Complex says this pioneering lesbian drama came into her life at a crucial time.

by | June 19, 2019 | Comments

My connection to Dee ReesPariah began one night at a Berlin bar. On New Year’s Eve 2009, I headed out for a drink in the German city, where I was stationed in the Air Force. As I settled in for the night and took a sip, I thought, “I am a lesbian.” It’s not something I had thought about in the weeks prior, but it felt right to say it then; and so over the super-loud music, I told my best friend that I was satisfied with coming out as a lesbian.

I rang in that new year with a new branch of identity, one that felt right but also terrifying because I had a lot of questions. How would I integrate myself into this community? Would I have to fight for acceptance within it? How do I find a date? These aren’t things I felt comfortable asking someone; I needed to experience it for myself. Unfortunately, I also had to deploy. I worked nights, gave up on a social life, and didn’t have time to process those questions or get close to any answers.

Instead I watched films, and one day someone suggested I check out Rees’ Pariah. I did some research, discovered what it was about, and knew this was something I needed to see.

Adepero Oduye as Alike, Pariah (Focus Features)

(Photo by Focus Features)

Pariah follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old Brooklynite who longs for an intimate connection with someone of the same sex. She knows she’s a lesbian and hasn’t come out to her parents; those around her suspect she may be gay based on her fashion choices and current friends, who are openly gay women. Observing this behavior, her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) encourages her to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis), in the hope she will rub off on her daughter: Bina is feminine, demure, goes to church – everything Audrey’s daughter is not.

Alike develops a crush on her new friend, and things look promising until Bina admits the feeling isn’t mutual. Meanwhile, tensions are rising at home. Audrey is incensed at the idea that one of her children is gay, while Alike’s father Arthur (Charles Parnell) believes his wife is overreacting. Tired of the drama, Alike leaves home early for college to start life anew. As she is about to board the bus to college, director Rees interposes the action with a shot of Alike reading her poetry. When she’s finally on the bus, glaring out of the window with a look of satisfaction, we hear the line “I am not running, I’m choosing.” It hits close to home.

PARIAH, Aasha Davis and Adepero Oduye, 2011 (Focus Features/ Everett Collection)

(Photo by Focus Features/ Everett Collection)

“I’m not running, I’m choosing” is a theme that ripples throughout the film, during which Alike is in a constant tug-of-war between family obligation and self-preservation. In the end, she chooses herself – not out of selfishness but for her own mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Unlike Alike, my family didn’t have issues with my coming out. They were very accepting, and many were not surprised. However, it’s still a heavy cross to bear when you exist at marginalized intersections. Claiming a sexual label outside of heterosexuality – on top of being Black and a woman in America – can mean you face physical abuse, verbal abuse, and sometimes death.

Alike and I have the same skin complexion, are of the same sexual orientation, we grew up in similar environments, and we made the bold choice to leave because it was the best choice for us and no one else. For me, leaving home to join the military was a decision without outside influences – the kind of major decision I hadn’t made until then. Seeing Pariah gave me confidence and confirmed that I made the right choice.

PARIAH, Adepero Oduye, 2011 (Focus Features/ Everett Collection)

Katie Shearer

The movie changed my life and my perspective on what it means to be happy with everything I am. When the film was released, it didn’t receive the notoriety it deserves. Now, many movie fans are discovering what a gem Pariah is. I would go so far as to say it paved the way for films like Moonlight, Night Comes On, and Rafiki. Rees has built a successful career. She followed Pariah with the HBO original film Bessie, starring Queen Latifah; Mudbound, her third feature, picked up four Oscar nominations, including for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Her next film is an adaptation of the Joan Didion novel, The Last Thing He Wanted.

I’m just here to remind movie fans that Pariah should always come up in conversation when discussing queer cinema game changers. It’s a movie that speaks to a demographic that rarely interests Hollywood studios – Black queer women and non-binary people. Rees took a cinematic risk and in doing so created a queer classic that holds up 10 years later – and will for decades to come.

Valerie Complex is a military veteran turned freelance movie journalist in love with all things related to cinema.

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.


Pariah (2011)

Adjusted Score: 98.371%
Critics Consensus: Pulsing with authenticity and led by a stirring lead performance from Adepero Oduye, Pariah is a powerful coming out/coming-of-age film that signals the arrival of a fresh new talent in writer/director Dee Rees.
Synopsis: Adepero Oduye portrays Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a 17-year-old African-American woman who lives with her parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans... [More]
Directed By: Dee Rees

Tag Cloud

RT History Amazon Prime Video name the review mockumentary classics adenture YA Comedy Central Television Critics Association Sundance Syfy hollywood Toys Acorn TV die hard The Walking Dead comic Infographic sequels diversity ESPN spanish language werewolf Best and Worst Amazon Studios Set visit BET Awards Country aapi NBC japan 2019 93rd Oscars saw joker TBS WarnerMedia robots Spring TV Trivia Film Festival pirates of the caribbean See It Skip It know your critic renewed TV shows Comic Book Lionsgate natural history trailers supernatural breaking bad casting monster movies TV Hallmark crime Certified Fresh Box Office high school Holidays Super Bowl Lifetime Christmas movies WGN finale strong female leads sitcom 71st Emmy Awards TNT San Diego Comic-Con Mary Poppins Returns Musical italian richard e. Grant comic books Watching Series cars television zombie TIFF news MSNBC 4/20 Biopics Ellie Kemper ratings sequel cats kids DC Comics 24 frames twilight YouTube Red Walt Disney Pictures Discovery Channel slashers child's play latino prank BBC One obituary mission: impossible comiccon TCA 2017 99% nature TV renewals Disney Funimation Winners rotten 1990s YouTube Premium Brie Larson Holiday festivals medical drama psychological thriller cooking ABC Schedule cancelled technology The Walt Disney Company Pop TV Rocketman cancelled TV series Mudbound comedies Mary Tyler Moore Summer Wes Anderson Sci-Fi TV movies Crunchyroll Comic-Con@Home 2021 Interview binge emmy awards space Pacific Islander Mystery criterion Animation toronto Esquire Pet Sematary what to watch Heroines versus doctor who movie nfl Avengers Winter TV Television Academy Martial Arts adventure cults true crime theme song Mary poppins Women's History Month adaptation anime ITV a nightmare on elm street Pixar FOX dogs best National Geographic directors TLC revenge A&E E! Marvel Studios harry potter razzies king arthur Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt VH1 Creative Arts Emmys sports based on movie international cancelled television 007 BBC free movies biography venice Tarantino Fox News Disney Channel PlayStation Cannes Christmas olympics Epix teaser independent politics Action Tomatazos south america TCM Red Carpet Video Games Cosplay indiana jones Year in Review Western El Rey New York Comic Con period drama E3 facebook Emmys universal monsters FX Disney+ Disney Plus GIFs 90s 45 LGBT DC Universe crime drama Character Guide Amazon Photos reviews Chernobyl USA Network Fall TV Reality Competition The Purge Drama legend Ovation Disney Plus Paramount CBS Shondaland Teen women PBS 2021 PaleyFest First Look Awards Tour Captain marvel ID franchise thriller critics GLAAD President Lifetime spanish deadpool Countdown Kids & Family Broadway stoner Exclusive Video movies TV Land game of thrones james bond Hear Us Out First Reviews DGA USA Oscars blockbusters Marathons cinemax cartoon Opinion Paramount Network stand-up comedy Pride Month Pop Binge Guide Nominations marvel cinematic universe Tubi 21st Century Fox Emmy Nominations TV One kong Crackle Black Mirror live action Song of Ice and Fire TCA romance docudrama MCU psycho SXSW spider-man Masterpiece parents Mindy Kaling social media DirecTV quibi vampires LGBTQ APB rt archives new zealand talk show Dark Horse Comics HBO Max BAFTA elevated horror BBC America game show zero dark thirty Star Trek Britbox blockbuster aliens series cancelled TV shows Hulu Family lord of the rings Nat Geo The Academy asian-american chucky Star Wars dc halloween tv Freeform historical drama worst Superheroe concert Spike football all-time serial killer basketball Apple TV Plus 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Shudder comics zombies Nickelodeon Rom-Com Warner Bros. remakes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Tumblr worst movies Trophy Talk Netflix Christmas movies award winner godzilla sag awards ViacomCBS ghosts Grammys animated new york CBS All Access indie The CW Logo romantic comedy jamie lee curtis Netflix green book IFC blaxploitation Valentine's Day dceu Tokyo Olympics Sony Pictures 72 Emmy Awards Image Comics streaming movies crime thriller BET Apple NYCC political drama TCA Awards screenings boxoffice video on demand spinoff VICE Paramount Plus anthology book adaptation ABC Signature Election stop motion Sneak Peek tv talk reboot science fiction Quiz Awards japanese heist movie dark archives Food Network kaiju Columbia Pictures Podcast ABC Family Rock A24 FXX superhero batman Vudu Sundance TV Amazon Prime superman IFC Films Pirates canceled TV shows Writers Guild of America Cartoon Network cops Marvel Ghostbusters Spectrum Originals VOD films Classic Film TCA Winter 2020 FX on Hulu hispanic target Starz Alien SDCC toy story golden globe awards Black History Month Bravo Polls and Games discovery SundanceTV Peacock fresh scorecard Lucasfilm HBO NBA X-Men hidden camera Fantasy Turner witnail spain canceled popular foreign children's TV dramedy Thanksgiving Music rotten movies we love Horror 2017 Musicals crossover Elton John GoT mutant OWN streaming rom-coms Marvel Television 20th Century Fox Endgame AMC Calendar Turner Classic Movies telelvision boxing miniseries satire dragons travel wonder woman Comedy History 2018 CNN Legendary Anna Paquin Showtime Hallmark Christmas movies Film The Arrangement new star wars movies Travel Channel Adult Swim documentary Fox Searchlight book christmas movies scene in color war MTV jurassic park OneApp australia scary movies disaster Baby Yoda justice league Reality nbcuniversal documentaries Apple TV+ Arrowverse 2016 The Witch transformers Universal American Society of Cinematographers Stephen King composers Premiere Dates CMT video suspense DC streaming service docuseries HBO Go 2015 Disney streaming service Sundance Now laika RT21 TruTV Extras golden globes screen actors guild Rocky 2020 spy thriller Comics on TV Trailer singing competition king kong Superheroes hist french Academy Awards unscripted police drama CW Seed halloween fast and furious YouTube black festival