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The Carletonian

Letting love shine through the cracks: A review of “Pariah” (2011)

The quest to find oneself is a common one explored in a media of all stripes, but director Dee Rees applies a patient and heartbreakingly specific touch in crafting her 2011 film, “Pariah.” The film was screened this weekend by GMICC, the Gender Minorities in Cinema and Media Studies Collective, with the aim of giving audiences an increasing awareness of films directed by women and gender minorities, and “Pariah” was a marvelous choice on their part. It’s a patient and well-written piece that explores the necessity of self-love in navigating an unforgiving world. 

Seventeen-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a Black lesbian struggling to make sense of her identity. She not only hasn’t been able to find a partner in which the answers to her questions lie, but confusion surrounds her in all corners, especially at home, in which she witnesses the marriage between her parents Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell) crumble, and where non-heterosexuality is stigmatized. She wears men’s clothes and hangs out with her openly lesbian friend Laura (Pernell Walker), both of which Audrey greatly disapproves of. As Audrey strives to shape Alike into someone more “normal,” she introduces her to Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of her coworker. However, her plan doesn’t necessarily pan out the way that she wants it to as Bina and Alike seem to be developing a sort of romantic relationship of their own. 

The film dedicates itself wholly to realism, which can be a double-edged sword at times. Realism, for me, tends to create a slower experience:narrative action can lack immediacy when imitating life’s natural rhythm. However, “Pariah” not only makes up for this with a swift eighty-minute runtime but doubles down on emotional rawness. This is thanks in large part to the film’s especially intimate camerawork, which never lets a face escape the frame for too long. In each passing moment, we see a world of conflicts, cracks and emerging wonder in Alike’s eyes; her frustration, hesitance, and fears feel terrifyingly real, which can also be attributed to Oduye’s performance. “Pariah” perhaps finds its greatest strength in its natural dialogue, relying on a combination of dry humor and understated vulnerability rather than overwrought melodrama.  

The result of this is a cast of specific, three-dimensional characters that grant us an in at all angles. Sure, the focus here is on Alike, whose struggle for self-definition is compelling in itself, but her costars are captivating as well. Laura is a magnificent foil for Alike, whose confidence in her identity seems to provide Alike with needed mentorship into the world of understanding one’s own lesbian identity. She encourages Alike to embrace her sexuality and tries to set her up with several people, but Alike doesn’t always bite. Alike’s parents and the world around her seem to label Laura in attempts to distance them; she’s branded a deviant when she, ironically, knows Alike and what she needs far better than her parents do. In fact, she is the most comfortable in her own skin of our cast, but faces a different kind of hardship altogether. Laura struggles to survive, working several jobs while attempting to get a GED, all the while attempting to support herself and her sister with no help from her mother, who she lives separately from. Alike is a great deal more financially privileged than Laura, but lacks the mobility that Laura can achieve given her acceptance of who she is. Our leads are well orchestrated. 

What I find admirable about “Pariah” in particular is how Audrey and Arthur are portrayed. They assert a heteronormative, and, at times, overtly homophobic pressure on Alike, but these qualities are played perfectly straight sans melodrama. Both have their vices and virtues, and are perhaps most guilty of loving Alike too much, each in their own way. Audrey is overprotective and fears that Alike’s differences will cause her to become an outcast, using her authority, the church and Bina to keep Alike from becoming a lesbian. Arthur’s suspicions can either be read as nonexistent or underplayed in favor of trusting Alike (perhaps to be held over his wife’s head). He is closer with Alike than Audrey and is the most hesitant to bring the possibility of Alike’s sexuality into question. Both fight hard to keep the inevitable outing from occurring through their own misconceptions of what lesbianism is, believing that it can be erased or ignored. Despite their different methods, it stems from loving their daughter and wanting to keep her safe, which ironically threatens to make her more broken than she already is. “Pariah” doesn’t shy away from homophobia and its effects on a developing mind, but it also  depicts source in a startlingly human fashion. They are our antagonists, but they are more realistically misguided than overtly villainous, despite the appalling decisions they make. 

As for Alike herself, her poetry begins as the only way in which she can express herself, but by the film’s end, she uncovers a sense of independence of a more active kind. So much of her journey entails being sculpted by competing ceramists; she is surrounded by a flood of ideas of who she is meant to be. She leaves learning to allow her “love to shine in through the cracks” of herself. This is not only an embracing of her broken parts, but of the individual way in which she loves, allowing her flaws and traumas to emphasize her love’s strength rather than shamefully hide it.  “Pariah” represents a journey toward this epiphany of self-love, a difficult Bildungsroman that is as heartbreakingly human as it is intense, and difficult to watch at times. It’s difficult to put an exact finger on what allows it to work so well, and in that regard, it’s a piece that demands absorption. Each line, each flicker of the eye feels fine tuned to allow its characters to simply exist and play off each other naturally. 

Rating: 4.5/5 

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