News

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)

(Photo by Focus Features/ Everett Collection)

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.

#1

Pariah (2011)
95%

#1
Adjusted Score: 98.131%
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

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