DIRECTED BY Dee Rees
STARS Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans
Buoyed by the buzz it generated at the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered there in January of 2011, Focus Features held Pariah from even a limited release until the very end of the calendar year (Dec. 28, to be exact), all the better to keep it fresh in voters' minds as it commenced its Oscar run.
I'm sorry, but are the suits at Focus delusional, or merely flesh-and-blood manifestations of the literary world's eternally optimistic Pollyanna?
After all, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has never had — with Precious few exceptions — a sterling track record with recognizing African-American films. The prime example remains the 1989 race, when Spike Lee's superb Do the Right Thing, the most important and long-reaching film of the year, wasn't even nominated for Best Picture; ditto Glory, which trumpeted the brave contributions of black soldiers during the Civil War. Instead, the winner that year was the perfectly pleasant but stridently non-threatening Driving Miss Daisy, which found a black man subservient to a white woman. Equally ignored was Lee's 1992 Malcolm X, the sort of passionate and sweeping biopic that usually wins boatloads of awards when it's about anybody but an African-American (e.g. Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, The Last Emperor).
Pariah represented a double-negative in the eyes of AMPAS: Not only is it about blacks, it's about blacks who also happen to be gay (see: the Crash over Brokeback Mountain scandal). But while the organization predictably ignored it in favor of the more easily digestible The Help, that's no reason for local viewers to miss it during its likely-to-be-brief Charlotte showing. Pariah was one of the best films of 2011, and it missed my Top 10 by just a couple of slots. (Go here for a look at the Best & Worst Films of 2011.)
In a deeply affecting performance, Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, a Brooklyn teen living with her parents (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) and little sister (Sahra Mellesse). Mom Audrey has an intense dislike for Alike's best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), believing her to be a bad influence on her daughter. Of course, it doesn't work that way: While Laura is indeed a lesbian, Alike's homosexuality is uniquely her own, and she struggles to come out of her shell enough to find a meaningful relationship while simultaneously making sure not to anger or upset her parental units with the truth.
Pariah was written and directed by Dee Rees, who expanded on the award-winning short film she made as an NYU student in 2007 (Spike Lee was her mentor and serves as an executive producer on this picture). It's a feature-film debut that exudes confidence and intelligence in equal measure (not unlike Lee's own self-assured calling card, 1986's She's Gotta Have It), and in sequences in which Alike has to skirt issues with her well-meaning but misguided parents (who are experiencing their own marital turmoil) or when she temporarily ditches Laura in order to hang out with a popular pretty girl (Aasha Davis) who has surprisingly taken an interest in her, Rees makes sure that we feel the tension and frustration inherent in every syllable and every pause — and, crucially, in every character (Parnell is particularly on target in conveying the torn emotions at the center of his father figure).
Pariah has a raw, naturalistic feel to it, the sort that makes it seem like we're watching something real and completely unscripted. That's obviously not the case, but it really doesn't matter: This is a movie that will doubtless speak to those who have endured similar hardships in their youth, and Rees' message seems to be that, as Dan Savage would say, it gets better.