My connection to Dee Rees’ Pariah 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.
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.
“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.
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.