In an arresting scene from the movie ‘Pariah’, seventeen-year-old Alike, played by Adepero Oduye, tells her father she’s not running, but she’s choosing.
Pariah is a story of a young African-American woman coming to terms with the fact that she is gay while living with her religious family in Brooklyn.
Oduye is adept in front of the camera, capturing the moment when a path must be chosen. Whether it’s the career that makes sense to no one else except you, or in Alike’s case, finding acceptance for who she loves.
The character’s bravery in embracing her path at such a young age is what makes the scene.
The movie, only 86 minutes long, doesn’t waste a second. In the opening scene, Alike enters a club with a sign on the door that reads: “18 to party, 21 to drink.” She is uncomfortable at the strippers performing in front of her. After all, she is just a child, one who hastily changes her outfit on a late-night bus in Brooklyn to make herself more feminine in front of her pushy, exhausting mother (played excellently by Kim Wayans).
From there, we follow Alike as she interacts with her bratty (and girlier) younger sister and bonds with her English teacher turned mentor. We listen as she overhears pretty, straight girls talking about ‘AG’s or ‘aggressive girls.’.
Dee Rees, the film’s director, knew Oduye would be a hit as Alike. “She had an outsider experience,” Rees said. “She was a second generation Nigerian immigrant growing up in Brooklyn and that was like Alike’s ongoing undercurrent, feeling like she didn’t belong.”
As Alike struggles with her sexuality and fitting in, it seems her best friend Laura (played by Pernell Walker) has no problem with being a masculine lesbian. As the story unfolds, Laura is unsurprisingly not immune to her mother’s inability to accept her sexuality and uses her boisterous nature to present a pumped up bravado.
Their friendship and brushes with adulthood and sexuality at cheap clubs is told through a careful and witty lens. It’s also refreshing to see their stories take center stage.
“It really showed characters that we hadn’t seen,” Rees said. “As a black lesbian woman, I wanted to see myself on screen, going through the same struggle. It’s a family we haven’t seen before, a middle class family, a struggle highlighted not from an angle of pathos or angst, but a human relatable perspective.”
“We hope this movie will be a tool to spark dialogue, especially within communities of color,” said the film’s producer, Nikisa Cooper.
Cooper said the film’s tight budget made planning for production a daily and weekly exercise. They “pretty much made the movie on layaway,” Cooper said. But that does not detract from the storytelling.
The nods to the rooftops littered with kids with nowhere else to go and Jamaican beef patties make the movie feel authentic, quiet and smart.
A subtle movie with powerful ideas about what it means to be different is something viewers can universally relate to whether what makes them different is race, sexuality or class. It’s a touching movie about how painful, and unavoidable, growing up can be.
The film is in select theatres on Dec. 28, 2011 and nationwide on Jan. 6, 2012.
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