I've been struggling to write about Pariah (2011, directed by Dee Rees). I'm not sure I'm going to be able to communicate what I think of it to a straight and or cis audience because so much of my reaction to it stems from being a not straight, not cis viewer. There's a certain gulf of understanding involved. It's not that I don't think a straight, cis audience wouldn't like or appreciate the movie--far from it--so much as I think that that audience will have a totally different experience of it. I'm saddled with my own privilege when watching it, too, given that this is very much a movie about a black experience of being queer, and that's something to which I have no connection at all. That I'm very much of two minds about Pariah doesn't help matters. So, as I say, I'm struggling. This is the fourth or fifth first paragraph that I've written. I haven't counted the first sentences I've aborted. I like to think that the heroine of Pariah would sympathize with this. She's a poet, after all.
Pariah follows a Brooklyn teenager named Alike (pronounced "ah-Lee-kay"). She is, as the title of that Aretha Franklin album once described, young, gifted, and black. And queer. At night, she hangs out at a lesbian strip club with her butch friend, Laura. She's shy where her friend is brash. She's never been kissed. She's not out at home. She changes her identity when she leaves the house, carrying a change of clothes so she can make herself over as the butch she feels herself to be. At home, she has to put up a front, wearing clothes that she tells her parents "aren't me." At school, she's a bright, straight-A student with a passion for writing. She spends her lunch hours trading poems with her creative writing teacher who encourages her to venture out to open mic nights. Alike's mother, Audrey, doesn't like the changes she sees in her daughter. She's under stress because her marriage to her policeman husband seems under threat (the film elides, but does not openly state that he's having an affair), and she's glommed onto Alike's queerness as the cause. Alike may put up a front at home, but parents usually know no matter how much they may want to deceive themselves. Alike's mother attempts to engineer her daughter's social life by introducing her to Bina, the daughter of one of her friends from work and church. Bina, it turns out, has a lot in common with Alike, including hidden sexual proclivities. It's a combustible mix.
Pariah is well-made, carefully observed, and beautifully performed. If that's all you demand of a film, then there's your pull quote. This shouldn't be minimized either, because lesbian coming of age stories have a tendency to be none of these things when they're made at all. White gay men generally suck all of the air out of the room when it comes to getting their coming of age stories out there. So this is a valuable film, and a good one. This is another expressionistic indie film (worked up in the Sundance film lab, as it so happens), but it's one with a good deal more daring than usual when it comes to composing its color palette, and soundscape. This is a film that pulses with lesbian hip-hop and punk, and washes everything with a riot of colors.
Alike is played by Adepero Oduye, who plays her with a charming naiveté. She seems visibly uncomfortable in the queer spaces she finds herself in, but she puts up a bold front. She seems most comfortable at school, where she is able to be herself as both a queer kid and as a writer. Oduye really shines in these scenes, especially when reading Alike's poetry. That could be disastrous, but she nails it. The movie identifies the main fracture between Alike and her mother as essentially religious and that's exactly right. The desperation with which Audrey attempts to enforce her own ideas of gender on her daughter, whether getting her to dress properly for church or finding her appropriate companions are all church-centered. Pariah even delves oh so briefly into the "god doesn't make mistakes" dialectic that informs so much attempted reconciliation between queerness and religion. The movie goes to pains to contrast Alike's home life with the complete shunning Laura gets from her own mother. Alike's mother could go either way, but Alike positions herself at the end of the movie to withstand either choice. Her dad, it seems, is worldlier, and is surprisingly supportive at the end. I found all of this deeply affecting. It all rings true.
But this movie has some other things on its mind, and here, it wanders into problematic areas. Pariah puts its finger on some of the fault lines between queer identities without actually dealing with the issues it raises. In particular, it presents the narrative of a butch lesbian in a way that is recognizable as a trans narrative. The secretive way in which Alike conceals her gender expression as a butch--an expression not much different from a male teen into hip hop culture--consists of clandestine costume changes and behavioral affectations. The scenes in which Alike wears a strap-on beneath her clothes when out with Laura begs the question, too, as to whether packing isn't a specifically transgender behavior. I'm sure that some butches who engage in this would say no, but most trans men would say yes. I tend to side with the trans men, but I would, wouldn't I? I doubt seriously that this is intentionally trans-themed, but the movie is at least aware of this when it has Alike's mom complain to her husband that her daughter is "turning into a damn man!" The tension between butch lesbian and trans man as discreet identities is something that this movie isn't equipped to deal with. As a viewer who actually is trans, there's a shock of recognition for me in Alike's behavior, from the chafing against gender roles in which one does not fit to the frantic concealment of the outward signs of gender variance from a disapproving parent. Believe me, this is all of a piece with my own experience of gender, even though I'm not a butch lesbian or a trans man. The fact that the film presents this with a blank face as an exclusively lesbian narrative bothers me a little, because there's an exclusionary quality to it. But this is my baggage. Other viewers will probably not notice any of this.
More problematic, though, is the streak of biphobia running through the film. The depiction of Bina, who "uses" Alike to experiment, while repudiating any notion that she's gay, demonizes bisexuality and bisexuals. Bisexuals in this movie are predators who break the hearts of their partners while exploring a "false" identity for its cool value. And, you know, I could live with all of this as an observation of particular characters if the film didn't open with a quote by Audre Lorde ("Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs"), which tips the filmmakers hand when it comes to the intersectionality of feminist and racial and queer experience. In that light, it bothers me a lot because it bloody well ought to know better.
So take Pariah for what it is: it's an amazing movie that shines a light on an experience that is significantly under-served by the movies. But also take it for a flawed film, one not nearly as enlightened as one might desperately hope it to be.