What I Saw: Pariah
Breaking is freeing.
Broken is freedom.
I am not broken.
I am free.
I can’t explain fully why I enjoyed Pariah as much as I did. I’ve seen dozens of coming out movies in my lifetime, and one might think that every angle had already been explored. But there is something about the story-telling of writer-director Dee Rees (definitely a director to watch for in the future), as well as the stellar performances by Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, Pernell Walker and Aasha Davis, that makes Pariah stand out.
For starters, Adepero Oduye’s character Alike undergoes more transformations than either queer cinema or black cinema usually depict in a single film. She is learning new ways to be in relationship with those around her, and with herself, discovering love and jealousy and heartbreak and self-reliance upon the way. But the film portrays each of these in a way that avoids the “in or out” portrayal of the closet that we usually get.
It is the evolution, not just from one identity to another, but within and beyond that other, that is powerful. We certainly get the scenes where Alike changes clothes from the pink blouses and hairstyles that her mother prefers, to the sweatshirt and baseball hat that she’s more comfortable in, but we also see the experimentation that goes into each side of that divide as her mother seeks out new styles and Alike tries out new looks. We see supportive friends (Pernell Walker) who can also be jealous at times. We see the seductions of first love from the unlikely church girl (Aasha Davis) that her mother unwittingly set her up with(!), and the rejection of having one’s own identity confirmed through that love, only to find that your partner is merely experimenting.
Special notice needs to go to Kim Wayans as the mother (who should have been in the Oscar’s supporting actress conversation, in my opinion) and Charles Parnell as the father. Their characters help to explore the way that the closet can impact not only those of us who are LGBT, but also our families as well. In a twist on the expected coming out narrative, it is the mother who is most vehemently homophobic that is pushing the hardest for a revelation, if only so that her shunning can be official and complete, while the father uses society’s silence and uncertainty about the closet to protect his daughter while she grows into her identity. Those who watch carefully will notice this pattern replicating itself in the parents’ relationship to each other, where the mother is concerned with the outward appearance and status of the family, while the father is himself hiding an affair--something that we only discover through a one-sided phone conversation, where the voice (and I might add, the gender) of the person on the other end of the line is never revealed.
The film is still showing in a few major cities. You can watch the trailer or check for showtimes on the film’s web site.
Sadly, Pariah was not nominated for any Oscars, but it did win the Cinematography award at Sundance last year, was nominated for 9 Black Reel awards, 7 NAACP awards, 2 Indie Spirit Awards, a Gotham, a NBR and a GLAAD award. Plus the film and Adepero Oduye both got a very nice shout out from Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. That has to be worth something!
At the time that I saw it (a few weeks ago), it was on my long lists and ranked 8th for Lead Actress Adepero Oduye, 14th for Original Screenplay writer Dee Rees, 19th for Supporting Actress Kim Wayans, 26th for Picture, 32nd for Director Dee Rees, 34th for Film Editor Mako Kamitsuna, 47th for Supporting Actress Pernell Walker, and 47th for Cinematography by Bradford Young.
As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!
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