In Pariah, debut writer-director Dee Rees tells a coming-of-age story rooted in the family and social customs of black Americans, but its lead character, Alike (charmingly portrayed by Adepero Oduye) lives a universal story. Alike is a teenager lesbian who has difficulty making her sexual awakening compatible with her strict family life. She alternates two worlds: the teen dyke subculture and the boundaries of her home life with a policeman father and socially-obsessed mother.
Alike’s on the verge of romantic access, the state of expectancy too often overlooked in an era that programs kids to become immediately sexually active. (Blame Madison Avenue and its flip side, Hollywood/ MTV.) Choosing realism as a storytelling mode, Rees introduces an exotic subculture of tough, physically thick girls alongside the conventional high school girls and daddy’s pets.
Ethnically, there hasn’t been a film like this since How She Move, departing form the conventions of Bring It On and Easy A that are essentially recent derivations of John Hughes movies that queers and teens of color relate to, even without seeing their personal reflection. The way Alike interacts with different sets of peers (her younger sister, her best friend and a new duplicitous flirt) reveals news sides of American teen life.
Part of what made Precious so scandalous was its distortion of non-white teen life as bizarre, contradicting the progress that mainstream media likes to claim for the Obama era by indulging the worst racist-Liberal stereotypes about African Americans. It may have so seriously damaged the general perception of African American femininity that the makers of Pariah felt compelled to respond—or conform to mainstream interest. The gamble has not worked. Pariah has been ignored in the year-end awards chase—with The Help providing the mainstream’s preferred slander of black women.
The unsettling title Pariah exaggerates Alike’s fear of being an outcast–as if begging for toleration rather than asserting her humanity. The good news is that Rees tells an individual momentous story in a modest way and she directs her performers so that their full humanity is displayed: Charles Parnell as the stern, loving father, Aasha Davis as the flirt (“I’m not gay gay”) and Kim Wayans as Alike’s panicky mother, herself the product of a different, inflexible feminine traditions.
Finding no villains and no outcasts, Rees (and surely executive producer Spike Lee—a more socially conscious producer than Lee Daniels) has made a movie that includes a full range of family and social complexity. Rees’ view of adolescent controversy deliberately avoids controversy–and that’s its strength. It recalls another taboo-adjusting, gay-themed, P-word movie, Carl Franklin’s little-seen Punk. It’s worth checking out, too.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xChair