15 September 2011 | Cinesnatch
A collection of great debuts
Newcomer Adepero Oduye plays Alike (Le for short), a seventeen-year old high-schooler living in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. She's smart and creative, much to the approval of her parents; but to their dismay, unbeknownst to them (or due to their unwillingness to accept and/or approve), she's also a lesbian with a masculine persona, or simply a Pariah.
Alike lives with her much more girly sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) and parents. Kim Wayans, best down for her broad comic characterizations from the 1990's In Living Color, shows off her dramatic chops as Alike's mother Audrey, a Christian-valued matriarch who doesn't have so much an agenda, but an affliction. She wants the best for her daughters, but her religious subscription limits her ability to love her eldest daughter completely. Unlike most black men in films about black women, Alike's father Arthur (a stalwart, yet relaxed Charles Parnell) doesn't always have his daughter's (or wife's) best intentions in mind, but he's neither shiftless, emasculated, physically abusive or non-existent as is every man in The Color Purple and the like.
In an ironic twist, Audrey introduces Alike to the daughter of a coworker, in hopes of steering her away from the butch influence of her best friend Laura (a cool, thoughtful Pernell Walker). Though her time with Bina (Aasha Davis) assumes a predictable route, it doesn't end as one might expect. To boot, the magnetic personalities of the characters are sufficient enough to make the trip worth it. As well, their shared love of alternative music provides one of the best film soundtracks in quite some time.
In the film's social environment, women who dress as men and love other women are considered pariahs. Feminine lesbians don't fare much better, but they, as well as others, view themselves as bisexuals who are going through a phase. They are not a threat, because of their non-confrontational gender qualities and the belief is that they'll eventually assume a more traditional place in society. It's one of the many conundrums that test Alike and help her become a stronger and better person, as well as writer.
The inevitable confrontation scene between Alike and her folks arrives unannounced without much of a consistent buildup. Yet, steering away from cheap sentimentality, it also avoids any hints of condensation. There are no martyrs or villains, only fully rounded characters.
It's difficult not to compare Pariah to the recent Precious, as there are so few films made about African-American women. Lee Daniel's popular directorial effort was dark, gritty and pulled no punches. And while it over-indulged in a broad range of emotions, it saved face with its sharp social commentary. However, along with the newly released The Help, one had to wonder if the best the marketplace had to offer in intelligent fare about black women is located at the lower rungs of society. It's not that those films are unacceptable and not to be appreciated, but the ghettoization gets to be monotonous.
That being said, Pariah's setting doesn't necessarily break the cycle, but it's a fine example of compelling storytelling. Directer Dee Rees is an exciting new filmmaker with great promise. Moving beyond her personalized debut, I stand in anticipation of where she will go from here.