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.


Pariah (2011)

Adjusted Score: 97.99%
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 facebook Binge Guide BET finale APB crime drama Academy Awards TIFF History movies what to watch PBS asian-american richard e. Grant Comic Book Hallmark Superheroe casting joker Comedy Central Columbia Pictures Year in Review HBO Max MSNBC Creative Arts Emmys DirecTV FOX doctor who A&E The Witch Winter TV WarnerMedia Western FXX Marvel Studios mockumentary cops Family Marvel Box Office Fall TV ratings stoner Anna Paquin Amazon Studios Winners Brie Larson DC Universe The Purge comics romance Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Syfy TBS composers ABC binge Extras The CW Funimation Interview AMC TCA 2017 werewolf police drama Mudbound Song of Ice and Fire CBS All Access strong female leads Paramount Network dramedy VH1 Musicals LGBT a nightmare on elm street 2018 Star Wars FX on Hulu dogs E! CMT Black History Month Teen christmas movies Travel Channel green book NYCC natural history anthology Women's History Month Rock mutant festivals award winner Tubi theme song justice league CBS cancelled spider-man cancelled TV shows FX cats cults Reality Competition Tarantino 71st Emmy Awards Dark Horse Comics San Diego Comic-Con Captain marvel thriller YouTube unscripted adventure aliens slashers Arrowverse Trivia PaleyFest The Walking Dead video Red Carpet golden globes Netflix documentary Comics on TV Pop TNT Infographic BBC America Mindy Kaling HBO scary movies Cannes 2019 Country Apple TV+ movie cancelled TV series serial killer Pet Sematary Masterpiece 007 First Reviews animated reviews Nickelodeon The Arrangement Ellie Kemper Hulu docudrama south america anime Lucasfilm Sneak Peek name the review dc Ovation Freeform TCA Winter 2020 social media YA elevated horror GoT DC Comics dark chucky canceled VICE Food Network based on movie children's TV Kids & Family ITV Calendar boxoffice spain Marvel Television 24 frames Peacock NBC Lionsgate Holiday Britbox TLC IFC Films Hear Us Out Sundance TV Thanksgiving Comedy Superheroes Photos transformers Opinion Video Games Disney Channel streaming Elton John X-Men Walt Disney Pictures Writers Guild of America Pixar comiccon GIFs Baby Yoda cartoon concert Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Toys Disney Plus hispanic toy story political drama latino vampires Animation Mystery Set visit diversity Disney batman CW Seed Epix ghosts Biopics spanish language Crunchyroll talk show teaser Grammys cooking Sony Pictures Action Film Nat Geo disaster renewed TV shows directors GLAAD TruTV Netflix Christmas movies cancelled television Awards dragons DC streaming service dceu Valentine's Day spy thriller Trophy Talk 2015 Election period drama USA Television Academy tv talk 2016 Amazon Prime Video Adult Swim 2020 Star Trek harry potter Music President rotten movies we love Drama Reality quibi supernatural Crackle Horror Shondaland TV renewals witnail robots best Emmys Fox News ESPN psychological thriller MCU discovery Lifetime Starz Quiz die hard Avengers Mary Tyler Moore Endgame crime Chernobyl OneApp breaking bad foreign 45 Lifetime Christmas movies game of thrones TV adaptation LGBTQ historical drama Cartoon Network Podcast YouTube Premium crime thriller jamie lee curtis YouTube Red zero dark thirty Character Guide Apple TV Plus politics Sci-Fi sitcom Certified Fresh Awards Tour 21st Century Fox parents sports TCM First Look Shudder cinemax Cosplay independent comedies RT History Spring TV Logo kids Warner Bros. WGN RT21 Apple ABC Family Pop TV Schedule hist Watching Series New York Comic Con TV Land Turner indie Mary Poppins Returns screen actors guild Super Bowl biography free movies Rocky sag awards true crime Esquire psycho Classic Film SXSW Paramount DGA Trailer criterion travel Marathons Spike Sundance Now Best and Worst series Acorn TV Heroines Disney+ Disney Plus Countdown Holidays Showtime mission: impossible Amazon Prime franchise zombie blaxploitation technology reboot screenings canceled TV shows book science fiction comic Stephen King 20th Century Fox Tomatazos singing competition TCA Film Festival Black Mirror Oscars Rocketman SundanceTV Pride Month sequel Emmy Nominations Disney streaming service SDCC romantic comedy universal monsters Nominations Summer miniseries El Rey game show Hallmark Christmas movies Bravo MTV Spectrum Originals Musical space See It Skip It blockbuster Rom-Com child's play National Geographic halloween USA Network Amazon 4/20 Turner Classic Movies OWN Polls and Games BBC medical drama television Discovery Channel stand-up comedy Martial Arts Sundance 2017 American Society of Cinematographers war Premiere Dates spinoff Vudu zombies IFC CNN Pirates crossover Tumblr Ghostbusters Fantasy cars E3 versus nature Christmas revenge A24