Pariah at 10: Dee Rees on her mould-breaking lesbian classic

The Oscar-nominated writer-director behind Mudbound looks back at her landmark debut feature, which has now been added to the Criterion Collection.

12 July 2021

By Grace Barber-Plentie

Pariah (2011)

One of the things that makes Dee Rees’ debut feature film, Pariah, so special is its continuing cultural resonance 10 years after its initial release. Debuting at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival (and picking up the Excellence in Cinematography award), it’s served as a stepping stone for both its director, Dee Rees, who’s gone on to work with Netflix on films like the Oscar-nominated Mudbound (2017) and last year’s The Last Thing He Wanted (2020), and cinematographer Bradford Young, whose distinctive style has been utilised by directors including Ava DuVernay, Dennis Villeneuve and Ron Howard.

But the film is more than just a jumping off point for its creators’ fruitful careers – it’s a stunning and nuanced depiction of Black lesbian life that sadly still feels rare in a film culture that’s more interested in depicting period dramas about white women’s forbidden love. So it’s no wonder that the film has been snapped up by The Criterion Collection to be released. Rees is the first Black woman (and of course the first queer Black woman) to have a film in the collection.

To mark this landmark I spoke with Rees about her feelings on joining the collection, about Pariah and the state of queer cinema 10 years on, and how she came to use Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back’ as a statement opening song.

Congratulations on the Criterion release of Pariah. How does it feel to have your film join the collection?

It’s exciting, but it’s also very humbling and scary in a way. I’m excited that it’s us, but then I’m also like “but why me”! There are filmmakers that I respect and admire who I hope will also be a part of the collection. 

I was introduced to Criterion in film school, so in my mind it feels like a very studious endeavour. So to be a part of what is taught feels significant not just to me but to the cast and crew. Actors will be studying the craft of Adepero Oduye, Aasha Davis and Pernell Walker. Other cinematographers will be studying Bradford Young’s craft. Other directors might even study my craft! So it’s nice to have the craftsmanship put forward first, beyond just our identities as filmmakers. 

I wanted to ask, as I’ve wondered about this for many years… The opening of the film, with Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back’ in the strip club, is one of the truly great needle-drops. How did you come to use that song to open the film?

That scene’s inspired by my first time at a lesbian club. Even though I was in my late 20s, a grown woman paying the bills, that still shocked me, just like Alike in the film. I just thought, “Oh my god where am I, what have I gotten myself into?” But then I heard the lyrics – “All you ladies pop your pussy like this”, and I was just like: “Yes! This!”

It was the thing at the time that I was scared to say out loud, and not fully able to embrace, so that scene in the club had to be inspired by my first time there, and that feeling. It just felt like the perfect moment to come into Alike’s consciousness.

It’s funny because that to me always had to be the opening song. But when I was talking to my producer Nekisa Cooper, and we were discussing all the repercussions of using it – some people are going to get up and walk out of the theatre immediately – but you know that the people who stay are really with you. It’s a good litmus test!

Pariah (2011)

Circling back to Pariah’s origins, the film started out as a student short in 2007. Did you always envision being able to turn the short into a feature film?

The crazy thing is, I envisioned it as a feature to begin with. We didn’t have the resources to do a feature film as a student thesis, so it was a question of “What can we achieve in this amount of time?” Even as a short, it was not fitting a conventional mould, as a short film is meant to be 10 minutes. But I couldn’t get it down to 10 minutes. It had to be half an hour.

So when you had the opportunity to make the feature, you already had a plan and a script mapped out for it?

I had a 140-page script that I’d already written. So revisiting that to make the feature was very instructive, because it taught me how to edit, as I had to get it down to 90 minutes. For example, with Alike and her father, I initially had three different moments with them – a moment about keeping secrets, showing an alliance, and a moment of questioning – but I was able to condense that into just one moment. 

And in the original script, we saw Alike going off to college. But I felt like she was repeating the same cycles again. So instead I realised that maybe we need to let her go off into the beyond. It’s not quite a happy ending, but it’s a hopeful ending, because she knows who she is. 

The film has such an incredible visual style, particularly the lighting and cinematography. How did yourself and Bradford Young come to decide on this vision?

Bradford and I always wanted the look of the film to serve the characters. We never wanted it to be cool for cool’s sake. We wanted the camera to show who the characters are.

People thought that it was underexposed, and too dark, but it was because we were showing Alike moving in and out of the light. She starts off the film as a chameleon, so she’s always painted, but towards the end of the film, she becomes bathed in white light. As we were shooting on film, Brad was looking at which stocks worked best, and this way of lighting with kinos and diffusion, which people weren’t really doing as much back then. He basically made his own kind of light so that we could tell the story in this particular way. 

As artists of colour, you have to be clear about your intentionality, as people might not attribute it to you. They might think it’s not clear, or it was a mistake, and it’s neither. It was an intentional aesthetic, and I think 10 years later it’s clear that that was by design.

You were also very ahead of the curve – there are now all these conversations on cinematography and how to light darker skin, but you were already doing that. 

Brad was already doing it! He was bringing his references, and we weren’t ascribing to what the ‘rules’ of film were. It was a beautiful look, and I feel like his work is now being recognised, and emulated, and people kind of get it now. 

You really focus on shared queer black spaces in the film, which we don’t often get to see. Why did you feel like it was important to show these spaces in the film?

I think it was important because we wanted to put Laura and Alike in context. We wanted to show that they weren’t alone. We wanted to show this communal lived experience where there’s this togetherness and camaraderie. 

Even though Alike is having this singular tug of war within herself, she still has love; she’s still surrounded by other people in different contexts that are going through similar things. I love Laura and her little crew, with the fun, the familiarity and the pace of it – it’s like moving at the speed of light. I just find beauty in those kinds of spaces, and I wanted the viewer to want to be there.

Dee Rees directing Pariah (2011)

I’m curious to know how you were able to find compassion for some of the characters in your film, particularly Alike’s parents. How was it writing them, and making them feel like three-dimensional characters?

When I was doing Sundance Writer’s Labs, I was given an exercise where I had to write the film from everyone’s point of view. Write it from beginning to end from Laura’s point of view, from Arthur’s, from Sharonda’s… I wrote these stream-of-consciousness monologues for each character. 

Alike’s parents love their daughter, but they can’t get out of their own way. With Audrey, she’s operating out of fear. She just wants her kid to have a good life but is worried that Alike being gay, or ‘choosing’ to be gay, is going to make things harder for her – she’s going to be unloved, and she’s going to be alone, because Audrey herself is lonely.

And then Arthur is operating out of guilt from his infidelity. He’s a great dad, but he doesn’t know how to relate to Alike, so he forms this alliance with her where they’re both keeping each other’s secrets. But he’s still unable to be transparent with her. These things make the characters sympathetic, because you can understand their motivations. It makes them feel real.

The casting was the second phase of that. Adepero Oduye had Alike in her, Pernell Walker had Laura in her. Audrey was one of the hardest roles to cast, because all the actresses who came in just gave me a stock character – the angry black mother. For a while I was worried that that was what was on the page, that I didn’t write the character right, but then Kim Wayans came in and she had to be like the 80-something Audrey. But Kim was the only one who got that vulnerability, that kind of love and hurt. Only Kim Wayans had that.

Lastly, I’m keen to know what your thoughts are on how queer cinema has changed in the decade since Pariah was released. Do you see big differences?

I think queer cinema has moved on in that coming out isn’t the big narrative point anymore. Sexuality is now treated much more matter of fact; it’s not the central conflict in a lot of film and TV. It’s just one facet of people’s identity, and not ‘the thing’. 

I feel like characters have space to be more complex and be flawed. Not everyone has to be a hero now. People can be villains, they can be flawed. You don’t have to have this virtuous presentation of queer people to undo all the many years of misrepresentation – queer people, just like anyone else, can have a spectrum of humanity. 

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