REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
As its title denotes, “Pariah” involves a character, who is struggling with the prospect of being ostracized. The 2011 release is being shown as part of as Penn Humanities Forum series, featuring films which have Bradford Young as cinematographer. Young has catapulted to prominence with two films he shot, “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” Both are now playing theatrically,
In “Pariah,” Alike (Nigerian actress, Adepero Oduye) is a 17-year old African American gal, living with her family in Brooklyn’s Ft. Lee neighborhood. Her dad, Arthur (Charles Parnell), is a police officer, while her mom, Audrey (Kim Wayans) is a church-going traditionalist. Rounding out the family is a younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse).
Alike is academically successful and extremely creative, as evidenced by her expressive poetry. All this has elicited her parents’ approbation. They are unaware that Alike is a closeted lesbian with a masculine cryptopersona. She is surreptitiously cruising gay clubs, titivated in baggy, gender obfuscating clothing and wearing men’s underwear.
Much to her mother’s consternation, Alike hangs out with Laura (Pernell Walker), an openly gay classmate. Audrey is eager to wean Alike away from Laura’s influence, which she regards as unsavory and corrupting. Her solution is to introduce Alike to Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of one of her fellow church ladies.
Bina seems prim and proper. Audrey doesn’t realize that Bina is actually a lesbian on the down low. One night, after attending a concert together, Alike and Bina are in the latter’s room. Bina starts smooching and caressing Alike. The sexually inexperienced Alike is uncertain how to react to these amorous overtures.
How can Alike come out to her parents, particularly her virulently homophobic mother? “Pariah” does an excellent job of dramatizing the tension between selfhood and the need for other people’s acceptance, especially one’s family.
“Pariah” screenwriter/director, Dee Rees, has a background atypical of filmmakers. She scored an MBA from Florida A&M University. After graduating, Rees marketed panty liners for Proctor & Gamble. After getting laid off, she headed to New York. There, she was involved with marketing the Dr. Scholl’s product line. While attending a commercial shoot, Rees apparently experienced an epiphany. She decided to jettison her marketing career in favor of filmmaking.
As Rees put it, “Screenwriting is a way of actually seeing your writing come to life, your work done, so I quit my job and went to film school.” She enrolled at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She was mentored by none other than Spike Lee, working for him as an intern on “Inside Man” and “When the Levees Broke.” After completing Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Directing Lab, she shot several shorts. This included the precursor for the feature length version of “Pariah.”
Drawn from Rees’ own experiences, “Pariah” is an intensely felt film. It elicited well-deserved critical praise, not only for its screenwriter/director, but also for its convincingly androgynous protagonist, Adepero Oduye. Rees won the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Awards for filmmakers, who were constrained by budgets under $500,000. Oduye was hailed for Best Breakthrough Performance by the African-American Film Critics Association, the Black Reel Awards, and the Black Film Critics Circle.
Since “Pariah,” Oduye followed up by playing Eliza in the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” However, during the intervening years, Rees has struggled. She wrote an unproduced script, “Large Print,’ about a recently divorced insurance adjustor. Subsequently, Rees was attached to an HBO series, starring Viola Davis. Then, she had supposedly lined up a directing gig on an indie hetero-romance titled, “This Man, This Woman.” Alas, none of these projects came to fruition.
Rees has reportedly been hired to adapt and direct the Phillip K. Dick novel, “Martian Time-Slip.” The book featured a schizophrenic repairman as a protagonist and temporal travel as a key plot dynamic. It hardly seems like the most natural fit for Rees. Nevertheless, I hope that this or some other project will enable Rees to resume her promising career as a filmmaker.
In the interim, the special screening of “Pariah” affords an opportunity to view Rees’ earlier success and savor the sumptuous cinematography of Bradford Young.
“Pariah” will be shown on Wednesday, Feb. 4 at the Ibrahim Theater at International House (3701 Chestnut), starting at 7 p.m. The screening is free, but preregistration is required. To RSVP, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/films-of-bradford-young-pariah-registration-12463682209.
“Pariah” ***1/2 R (for sexual content and language) 86 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.