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: 97.868%
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

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