The lights are dim; the stage illuminated by a single bright spotlight. A body writhes around a pole – sexual but dominant and in control of the gazes focused upon it. The music kicks in, sickly sweet and teasing, with those all-too-familiar lyrics you’ve heard a million times in the schoolyard: “All you ladies pop your pussy like this/Shake your body, don’t stop, don’t miss/Just do it, do it, do it, do it, do it.” The club is full – packed with black women, queer black women of all shapes and sizes, having a great time. And no, this isn’t some kind of black feminist fever-dream – it’s the opening scene to Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011).
Unfaded since its premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Pariah is the sort of film that generally gets mentioned in relation to other films – “the female Moonlight” now being a popular comparison. But Rees’ vision is unique, taking the lead from directors like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) and Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982) to create a uniquely pop-culture savvy, sex-positive queer womanist vision, where Audre Lorde quotes and Khia songs played in strip clubs sit comfortably next to one another.
Expanding her 2007 short of the same name, Rees’ film follows protagonist Alike, played in a mesmerising turn by Adepero Oduye, who went on to play a scene-stealing role in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Estranged from her family due to her burgeoning sexuality, Alike experiences first love and turns to writing poetry to help her navigate the world, with Rees concentrating on moments and emotion rather than action to unravel her story. You can feel the intent in every gaze, and Alike’s poetry, narrated by Oduye over the film’s eclectic soundtrack, allows us a doorway into her mind.
This is a stunningly shot film – an early landmark for the celebrated cinematographer Bradford Young, which won him a Sundance award. Young would later shoot Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and Selma (2014), and he became the first African American to be nominated for the Oscar for best cinematography, for Arrival (2016). If you’re familiar with his work, Young’s signature is apparent from the opening scene: the characters are shot in raw natural light, which bathes their skin in shades of red and purple, highlighting the beauty in black skin in the way he has become renowned for.
While coming-out and coming-of-age stories are often tricky terrain, Rees handles both with great sensitivity. We root for Alike, but the other characters in her life are compelling even if their stances are unsympathetic. Alike’s mother, who could easily have been portrayed as the villain of the piece, is painted with empathy, and Rees takes the time to step away from Alike’s story to delve into the life of her best friend Laura, an out queer woman living with her sister after being rejected by her mother. Laura’s story provides a cautionary tale, suggesting why Alike is unwilling to out herself. But it also shows the supportiveness of a surrogate family unit, such as that Laura has built for herself with her sister, Alike, the nightclub patrons and other queer black women like her.
Pariah is a film made up of displays of tough love – from Alike’s mother, who switches between suspicion and rage, to her father and sister, who deliberately turn a blind eye, and even her supporters, such as her English teacher and Laura, who constantly push her to be the best version of herself. But, much like in Alike’s poet peer Maya Angelou’s famous verse, still she rises.
While it shows heartbreak and emotional brutality, there’s much beauty and even joy too, Rees revealing a wide spectrum of queer black female experience with bracing honesty. To paraphrase one of Alike’s poems, Pariah is a film that the light shines out of. It’s one of a kind.
Watch the Pariah trailer