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: 97.915%
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

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