Rookie Director and Writer Dee Rees says it herself: three words which will scare away American moviegoing audiences are “black,” “lesbian,” and “coming of age,” and we old WASP gringos don’t want to admit it publicly, but she’s right. We’ll stay away in droves.
But this one is a strong piece of moviemaking. It apparently began as a graduate school project at NYU for Ms. Rees, originally as a “short,” but people like Spike Lee took an interest, and she was able to expand the story to feature-length, utilizing most of the same actors.
Veteran “bit” part actor Adepero Oduye shines in her first starring role, as Alike, a young woman on a difficult voyage of self-discovery. She’s part of an intact traditional nuclear family: Mom, Dad, younger sister----but they all have their own problems, and their encouragement of her exploratory period is minimal. Her Dad, Arthur (Charles Parnell), a New York City cop, seems alternately overworked, distracted, angry, impatient, and grouchy. He often eats leftovers, by himself, late, claiming he has to work. His loyal but suspicious wife, Audrey (Kim Wayans), senses his emotional distance but it seems the harder she pushes, the farther away he gets, which only increases her own insecurity and unhappiness. Younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) fights her like a sibling, and only seems to show any affection toward Alike when Mom and Dad are arguing, which they indulge in with increasing frequency and volume. Yes, they suspect that Alike is “different,” but they have greatly varying response to that. Arthur is conflicted; the loving Dad part of him wants to be patient and accepting, but the law-and-order side of him wishes fervently that his daughter would quit hanging out with that bad element on the wrong part of town. His default mode is to ignore what he sees and hope it will go away.
Mom, on the other hand, is a church-going Bible-toter who thinks of her daughter’s emerging orientation as sinful-----needing prayer, her father’s stern lecture, and her mother’s insistent safeguarding. (Why is it that the true believers always come across as narrow-minded, intractable, and unloving?) Mom particularly despises Alike’s new “friend,” Laura (Pernell Walker), whom she considers a corrupting and dangerous influence on her “pure” daughter. Ironically, she tries to steer Alike toward a church friend’s daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), who looks sweet, but is actually the one who will hurt Alike, because Bina, who appears “straight,” is a mere callous adventurer, whereas Laura would actually love and care for Alike. (So naturally the churchgoers can never get it right.)
Other than the obvious complaint about the caricature of the only sincere believer in this film as controlling, closed-minded, and mean-spirited, “Pariah” powerfully portrays the many layers of difficulty confronting the young woman whose emerging sexual identity is a confusion to herself, and to others around her. Probably only the very adventurous moviegoers will trouble themselves to watch it, but in the context of such emotionally-charged debate that most mainline Christian denominations are enduring right now, including the Presbyterians, it’s a prophetic voice from the outside that will only be heard by those who have ears to hear.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas