This weekend Cornell Cinema will be playing Pariah, a debut for writer/director Dee Rees that premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival, as part of the cinema’s Gaypril series. As coming out and coming of age stories go, Pariah manages to deliver fresh insight into the life of 17-year-old Alike (Cornell’s own Adepero Oduye ’99) as she struggles to publicly confront her sexuality. It does not play on the typical trope of bullying per se, but rather focuses on the unfortunate pitfalls of falling for someone and being open about whom you truly are. That is not to say that the film does not touch upon the bigger, more immediate danger like coming out to an intolerant family — a moment that strongly resembles the intense beating scenes from 2009’s Precious. The film runs the gambit in portraying love’s realities as a teenager as well as the hard-hitting depictions of society and family when coming out as an African-American lesbian.
As noted earlier, Alike is played by Adepero Oduye ’99. You may have heard her name before if you saw Meryl Streep’s haphazard speech at this year’s Golden Globes when winning for Best Actress in a Drama. She lauded Oduye’s performance in the film and with good reason. Oduye is 33 years old yet becomes this bruised 17-year-old, more than convincingly — a feat in itself. But besides that little fact, she really connects with audiences. She brings out those emotions of falling in love for the first time and sharing a special, intimate moment with that significant someone. Her raw portrayal of betrayal after spending the night with Bina (Aasha Davis) reminds us all of heartbreak at one point in our lives. But the most riveting part of Oduye’s performance is her eyes. Whatever her character may be feeling, the desperation to break free and be who she is lies within her eyes. There is just a purity that not many actors can express.
With that cultural conflict of sharing feelings for another girl and tenderly acting on them, Alike struggles to find the voice to tell her parents the truth about her sexual orientation. Her parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell) question her sexuality but do not want to face the facts. Audrey tries so hard to somehow change Alike or make her into the lady she would like her to be while knowing the inevitable. Arthur just wallows in denial, as Alike is his little girl and the closest to him. With these characters, Dee Rees balances the flaring tempers and emotions on each side of the coming out process. That said process is gaining more public acceptance with each passing year, but Alike’s parents portray the very real pain that still boils in many.
That process seems especially difficult for Alike’s mother. Kim Wayans is known primarily as a comedic actress (she is part of the Wayans collective), but she breaks type with her portrayal of Audrey. It is a standout performance as the overprotective and naïve mother. Between her ideal for a perfect, upstanding Christian family and her own desire to be noticed, Audrey struggles to come to terms with the intangibility of this goal. Wayans does a fantastic job in playing this serious role. She completely transforms into Audrey: the scene where she beats Alike for being gay is scarily genuine as both express ineffable pain. It seems that maybe comediennes have a way with these difficult maternal roles (yes, I am referring to Mo’Nique’s haunting performance in Precious). Maybe Wayans as well as Mo’Nique have found a new acting niche.
As for the remaining supporting cast, each also add to the richness of the film. There is Bina who speaks as the experimental lesbian, another form of sexual and personal search within the film. Then there is Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike’s best friend and confidante. Her personal struggles with her own mother for being gay and a high school dropout come to a head at one point in the film, a quieter yet still biting reflection of Alike’s own problems with her mother. Lastly, there is Alike’s little sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who plays the bratty sister wonderfully. She has no filter or real world perspective on her family life. She doesn’t understand everything or why her sister needs to hide her true self. As the baby of the family, she always has had the privilege of doing essentially what she wants. This naivety also highlights how family members cope with such news when so young and not fully aware of the world around them.
Overall, Pariah is a film well worth watching for its gritty and honest approach to storytelling. It sparks dialogue on what actions are acceptable when dealing with news that can shake a family to its core. In the end, Alike feels like she is left standing alone, but in reality her father still cares for her as well as her sister. She also finds strong support in her best friend, Laura. Regardless, she is left with something missing as her mother can never fully accept her daughter, at least by the end of the film. But by showing the development and transitions of each character in response to the news of one being gay, Rees gives a faithful panoramic view of what it entails to come out as a gay person, regardless of gender or race. I will now leave you with Audre Lorde’s quote on the opening screenshot of the movie: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.”