What I expected to be a straight-ahead story of a young black lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality turned out to be something other than that. The story is of an adjusted young black lesbian trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense. From the painful last part of the opening scene where Alike, coming from a night out with her friends, must change from her ‘boyish’ look to the ‘girlish’ look that’s expected of her we’re immediately drawn into her dilemma: how does Alike find the strength to shake off the mask that’s been assigned to her and live her life as it was meant to be?
But there’s more to the story. In ‘Pariah’, we’re not only allowed to see Alike’s pain, but the pain of those around her as they struggle to find ‘a good place to be’ in life, and it’s their own self-appointed failure in life that inflames their outrage against Alike and her kind. Alike and the community of lesbians become the scapegoats.
Pariah is a film whose story offers many thematic layers and complex characters, and the film skillfully handles those elements. The film is shot mostly with close framing giving the audience a feel of the smallness and the angst of the world around Alike, and during moments of warmth and humor (yes, there are moments of humor in this film) the close framing allows the viewer to focus on the beauty of Alike’s world; the pacing of the film is moderate, giving us time to absorb what the characters are experiencing, something that's needed, given the complexity of the characters' situations.
Then there is the acting. The actors gave their all in ‘Pariah’. I wouldn’t take anything away from any of the actors because everyone seemed to have understood the story as a whole, as being about more than just Alike, but about the suffering of the people around her as well. Adepero Oduye who portrays Alike brings a soft strength to the role, strong willed, but not without being understanding; Charles Parnell who plays her father, lets us see someone who knows he must find balance when life deals him an unexpected hand (oh, and he’s hot too, even one of my lesbian friends agreed). I really liked all the actors, from Sahra Mellesse who played Alike’s younger sister; Pernell Walker who plays her best friend Laura; Aasha Davis who plays the little hottie, Bina who steals Alike’s attention, to Shamika Cotton (a native of my hometown Cincinnati), who plays Laura's understanding sister who takes Laura in once the rest of their family disowns Laura.
But let’s talk about that Kim Wayans—Damn that woman can act! In the role of Alike’s mother, Audrey, Kim Wayans let us see the fear her character harbors, a fear that she just might not be able to pull off having the perfect family she had dreamed. Audrey is a woman who has placed great demands on her family to the point of alienating them-- and others as well because even at work her co-workers avoid her. She confuses her own self-interest with love of family. It’s a complicated role that could be misconstrued by a less skilled actress as someone who is just angry without truly understanding that it is fear that drives the character. Kim Wayans seemed to have gotten it-- a great performance. Throughout the film I couldn’t take my eyes off Kim Wayans’s eyes and the ongoing dialogue in them.
An added attraction for me was to see further inside a community I’ve only seen glimpses of: the urban hip-hop culture of young, mostly black and brown lesbians. It’s a community that is rarely shown on the big screen, if ever; and no they don’t sit around strumming acoustic instruments like their counterparts we so often see onscreen (btw, I even found out what an ‘AG’ is). The film also addresses some important issues of young LGBT youth like homelessness and disenfranchisement. Oh, and the soundtrack is slamming!
However, Pariah wouldn’t have been this wonderful film without an accomplished director and we have found that in Dee Rees. From a beautifully shot film and the ability to help her actors really understand the complexities of the story, Dee Rees, has proven she has the chops.
(Doug Cooper Spencer, Saturday, March 17, 2012)