When Coming-of-Age Means Coming Out
Film #18: Pariah (2011)
Director: Dee Rees
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a 17 year old lesbian who has had a strict Christian upbringing. This means that somewhere in her history are almost certainly years of confusion, denial, fear, and desperate prayers to be straight. At this point in Alike’s life, though, she knows that she’s gay and is trying to explore how to live in that identity without upsetting the fragile environment at home. Is she protecting her parents? Is she protecting herself? There’s more going on in this family than arguments over Alike not wearing feminine enough clothing: her parents’ marriage is riddled with barely acknowledged tension. Alike is certainly right to worry about what will happen to her if her sexuality moves from suspicion to certainty within the household, but she’s also trying to do no further harm to parents who are in pain for other reasons.
Alike’s parents are played by Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell. One of the strengths of Pariah is in the portrayal of a marriage that is still superficially intact, but fracturing slowly under the surface. Every small conflict – over what Alike wears to church, or even over what she’s called (her mother calls her “Lee”, her father insists on calling her by her full name) seems to carry with it an untold back story.
Both parents sense the truth. Alike’s mother, Audrey, fights against it by forbidding her from spending time with her butch best friend (Pernell Walker), and forcing her to spend time with a girl from church (Aasha Davis). Alike’s father, Arthur, practices willful denial, even when he hears jokes and rumors about his daughter.
But this is ultimately Alike’s story. She’s not simply hiding: she’s trying to shift between various identities, experimenting with how she should look and behave in different settings.
It will take real risk and pain before she begins to settle into something more true than the boxes that others are trying to fit her in. Director Dee Rees has said that Pariah is semi-autobiographical, and that she spent her high school years trying “to avoid seeming gay”. Rees’s own experience as a black lesbian growing up in the South surely gives Pariah much of its empathetic tone: Alike’s sexuality makes her an outsider in her community, but she is still portrayed as an ordinary teenage girl trying to sort out family and future and love – like most teenagers. Credit also has to go to Oduye, whose performance has the openness of childhood. As hidden as her life requires her to be, her face is still unguarded.
Pariah deals in a difficult topic: the possibility of being cut off by family is a present reality for many LGBT teens. But the movie itself is ultimately hopeful. Akile is intelligent and centered, and Pariah ends with the sense that she will find her way in the world.
One note of warning about Pariah: The film opens with a fairly raw scene set in a lesbian club. I wish it wasn’t there, if only because it’s atypical of the rest of the movie and may alienate the very viewers who could gain some empathy from Alike’s story.
Bonus Pick: Mississippi Masala (1991)
Director: Mira Nair
Early in her career the prolific Mira Nair directed this story of an Indian family who fled Uganda during Amin’s regime in the 1970s. In 1990, now living in Mississippi, their young adult daughter (Sarita Choudhury) falls in love with a black man (Denzel Washington). Mississippi Masala is a romance, but it’s also (like Pariah) a story of family coming to term with its own bigotry. In an all-around fine cast Roshan Seth is especially good as Jay, the proud patriarch and a man who has never forgotten the wrongs done to his family.