By Andrea Thompson
The 2011 Dee Rees film “Pariah” may be a coming of age film about a Black teenager who is also a lesbian, but her struggle isn't with her sexuality exactly. From the film's opening shots, it's pretty clear that 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows she's into women. As “Pariah” begins, Alike is staring in awe at a female stripper at a club with mostly Black lesbians while the very uncensored version of Khia's “My Neck, My Back” plays. So no Alike isn't in denial, but most of those around her are. Alike has to leave soon after, and her insisting that her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) leave the bus before her is the first sign that Alike doesn't feel. Sure enough, Alike sheds her preferred masculine clothing for a more conventionally feminine look.
The reasons why are soon clear enough. New York City is generally depicted as a bastion of liberalism and acceptance, where stand-up comics can confess onstage that they're pregnant and planning on getting an abortion the next day. Not so in Alike's Brooklyn neighborhood, a more conservative world where in seems most are happily in denial when reality doesn't suit their beliefs.
Alike's parents certainly are. They're not only in denial about their daughter's sexuality, but their marriage itself. “Pariah” never officially reveals that Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a police detective, is having an affair, but the late-night phone calls, the absences, his lack of interest in almost any kind of intimacy with his wife Audrey (Kim Wayans), and his general defensiveness, are all clear indications.
Alike's inclinations are just as equally clear. It's inescapable even in trivial moments, such as when Audrey buys Alike a pink shirt, and her coworker immediately assumes it's for Alike's younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who is clearly interested in boys and what dress to wear to the school dance. Rather than accepting Alike, Audrey tries to mold her into the image she believes Alike should conform to, which backfires as such efforts usually do.
The really heartbreaking thing is that it backfires in a way neither Audrey nor Alike predict. Audrey disapproves of Alike's friendship with the openly gay Laura, and pushes Alike to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis) instead. Alike is at first reluctant, but quickly forms a bond with Bina, who proves to be more complicated than she appears. In a film where music plays such a large role, the two first bond through a shared appreciation of the underground rap Alike adores. This also gives her a welcome relief from the club scene that the studious Alike has never felt truly comfortable in.
It turns out though (if it needs to be said...spoiler alert!) that Bina is pretty deep in denial too. She's very aware that Alike is a virgin, and takes the initiative throughout their relationship. Bina is the one who makes the effort to get to know Alike, and is the first one to kiss Alike, invite her to stay the night, and take their relationship deeper. But the morning after Bina and Alike have sex, Bina is detached, picking up stuff around her room and not looking at Alike. Not good.
It gets worse, as Alike naturally assumes that Bina still cares about her, even telling Bina that last was amazing and thanking her. In response, Bina dismisses both Alike and the ramifications of their night together, telling her it was just playing around and that she's not “gay, gay, just doing her thing.” The only concern she has left for Alike is whether or not she'll tell anyone. It's basically every girl's worst nightmare of how your first time will be.
This can't leave Alike anything but devastated, but it seems to make her more determined than ever to live her own truth. When she hears her parents arguing, she decides to get involved and finally tell them the truth neither of them wants to hear. Far from being cathartic, Audrey beats Alike in spite of Arthur's pleas, and Alike retreats to Laura's house. Even though Arthur makes a feeble attempt to bring Alike back home, Alike decides to head to Berkeley for an early college program she's been accepted to. “I'm not running, I'm choosing,” she says defiantly. Even if Alike's mother still refuses to reconcile with her daughter at the end, Alike's loved ones, which include not just her father and her sister, but Laura, are there to see her off.
In a way, “Pariah” is a far more brave film than “Moonlight,” a far more iconic film directed by Barry Jenkins that came out in 2016. Dee Rees even utilizes many of the same techniques as Jenkins, albeit in a far more subdued fashion. Jenkins used a far more instrumental score in “Moonlight,” bathing its Miami neighborhood setting in far more sumptuous colors that spoke to Jenkins's influences, specifically Wong Kar-wai.
“Moonlight” also has Chiron reconciling with his mother and finding love by the end. In contrast, diligent student Alike leaves by the end for a new life, still estranged from her mother and the classmate who was her love interest. Even Alike's closeness with the father who was far less interested in changing her remains tenuous. Yet Rees leaves us in no doubt of the bright future Alike has ahead of her. Her heartbreak has allowed her to delve deeper, leaving us with a poem that speaks of her brokenness, and defiance, the freedom she has found as the result of her struggles.