Pariah – Art 3/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5
Now do it again, this time with money. Extended with the help of producer Spike Lee from an earlier short film with many of the same actors in their roles, Pariah sprouted from a small idea into a big, significant one. Dee Rees’ story about a poetically-gifted black teenage girl in Brooklyn chafing under the pressure of her Christian household is in execution both conceptually and emotionally compelling. There are many “black movies”, and “gay movies”, but “black gay movies”? I can’t think of any, other than Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Boat Trip. Furthermore, two somewhat suffocating recurrences in African-American cinema are the focus on either poverty and crime, or the schmaltzy softly-lit glossed-over turkeys like Soul Food. Though Pariah isn’t exactly an unfamiliar narrative of sexual identity and acceptance, it’s unique in its liberality to tell a story its own way.
The film begins with Alike (Adepero Oduye) and her butch friend Laura, both dressed like yobs, having a time at one of their girls-only haunts, and on the late night bus ride home, Alike’s dilemma surfaces immediately as she changes into her more ladylike gear to confront her overbearing mother (Kim Wayans). Her father (Charles Parnell) sees the best in his daughter, and his expectations are primarily material. He can only protect her from physical danger, and as he reveals later on, his philosophy on parenting is to let Alike learn her own lessons within reasonable safety. Alike’s mother could hardly be more different, seeing everything in the stark Biblical terms of the eternal, with absolutely zero room for error.
What truly makes the movie is the especially smart acting. Nigerian-American Adepero Oduye, who Meryl Streep didn’t hesitate to praise during her own victory speech at the Golden Globes, has been showered with complimentary rave reviews for this role. After seeing it, you’ll find it just a bit difficult to disagree. In one of the scant few instances of a Wayans performing without a trace of absurdity in a serious dramatic role, Kim Wayans absolutely kills as her obsessively intrusive Bible thumper mother. The history of black Christianity is interesting unto itself, but a pall of despair seems to be cast over the plight of gays in the black community, as if one struggle is all they need, and the Abrahamic dogma has no sympathy for the Pagan irregularity of Sodom & Gomorrah. Wayans’ fierce confusion makes for a supporting role you won’t soon forget. Charles Parnell excels here as the perceptive police detective father who is seemingly only capable of seeing what he believes at home.
People all across America are trying to prove they’re hip to the plight of black women by talking about how much they love The Help and all the actresses in it. Spare yourself the boredom (and humiliation), and just observe Oduye put on a clinic in this small, simple gem of a film. Where The Help is incessantly caught with its pants around its ankles trying to be cute while speaking in sweeping terms for racial or sexual justice (the only epic sweeping the South ever saw was Sherman’s Army burning the past on its way to the coast), Pariah is instead focused on a very personal and yet universally connective story that strikes at actual human emotion. There’s no glitz and very little glamour, the polish leaves a lot to be desired, the narrative is fairly standard issue and unadventurous, and the story ends just as it’s getting interesting. But fuck, it’s still goddamn good.