If you haven’t already had the opportunity to check out Dee Rees’s film ‘Pariah’ I highly recommend you stop reading this, find the nearest theater and see the next showing. I finally had the chance to see the film—which has garnered a significant amount of critical success—and was thrilled by Rees’s presentation of a story that too easily could have left an audience filled with sorrow, pity or false empathy.
What struck me almost immediately about ‘Pariah’ was it’s honest portrayal of adolescence. Alike, a 17-year old black androgynous woman, struggles to find herself amongst the chaos that surrounds her. Her dysfunctional family life, complicated friendships, her first sexual encounter—and the awkwardness that follows—are things that everyone can relate to despite race, gender identity or sexual orientation. Of course, these things are also complicated by Alike’s black skin, butch exterior and interest in women, which are central to her character. Rees does a phenomenal job of balancing general teenage angst and discomfort (think ‘Thirteen’ or ‘Raising Victor Vargas’) and the specific issues that speak to the black LGBTQ community.
At times, the film ran the risk of coming across as another sob story involving disenfranchised black youth, a la ‘Precious,’ inciting the same frustrations I’ve had with the media’s portrayal of black communities as being a breeding ground for violent upbringings or helpless youth. Fortunately, Rees remains grounded in her portrayal of Alike and successfully extends a positive outlook throughout the film. In many ways, the film seems like Rees’s feature-length response to the highly publicized suicides that sparked the It Gets Better campaign. Too often, issues that face the LGBTQ community are discussed as if they only affect white people; ‘Pariah’ offers an alternative discourse that examines these issues within a black context, exposing a community that has resources and networks that can help black LGBTQ youth—to paraphrase Alike—choose instead of run.
If nothing else, ‘Pariah’ popularizes and continues the much-needed conversation on the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. The Audre Lorde Project, the Zuna Institute, FIERCE and Black Lesbians United are wonderful organizations that work in support of young women like Alike, and successfully challenge racism and homophobia.