In 2011, a film was released called Pariah, about a young, African American woman who is quietly but assuredly embracing her sexuality. It tells the story of 17-year-old Alike, who wishes just to write, find a girlfriend and live her life happily. Instead, she is forced to confront her sexuality head on, dealing with her pain as well as her mothers, before realizing what being happy means and where it will take her.
I am convinced that if this film had been given the distribution it deserved and a larger audience, lead actress Adepero Oduye would have won an Oscar, because her performance is raw, emotional, painful and confident. This is a young woman whose vulnerability paints a portrait of a person who is very much out there and real, and who needs other people like her to show that she’s not alone.
Alike is an exercise in restraint for most of the film. She wants to be open about her sexuality with friends but isn’t ready for that openness at home, especially with two old-fashioned parents. Her mother keeps trying to force her into an admission of sorts, which only cages Alike more. Her father, on the other hand, despite obviously loving her, is neglectful to picking up on the little things.
Alike goes through the oftentimes painful process of self-discovery. She knows who she is but doesn’t always know what that means. She knows what’s expected of her but doesn’t know if that’s right for her. She knows she loves her father and has a volatile relationship with her mother, but doesn’t know if her mother’s rage is all her fault. Oduye manipulates all of these minute facets of the character with deftness and creates a fully formed human being; a character who isn’t always likeable but certainly is always sympathetic, always relatable and always one whom we’re hungry to see more of. Oduye gives her her all, and it is a performance worthy of a large viewership.
My love for the film extends to more than just her skills – I also have praise for the depiction of the parents. For much of the film we’re put into the position of believing that the dad, Arthur, is the good cop to the mother’s, Audrey, bad cop. However, toward the end we realize how damaging his passive attitude has been to both mother and daughter. Audrey feels unloved and subsequently forces her pain and internal anguish onto her daughter, who needs a loving mother more than ever. Neither are the heroes in Alike’s story – she is her own.
Directed by Dee Rees, the film has a gritty and underground atmosphere and a color palette that matches our lead characters’ feelings. The drab settings are reserved for unwelcome confrontations and the softer lighting is used for flirty interactions between Alike and the girl she likes. Every shot has a meaning. Rees has an artistic eye that utilizes color and lighting and framing to enhance the emotional stakes of the characters. The color purple is often used, and purple has been described as a color representing inner, spiritual peace, which is something Alike doesn’t yet have. Another interesting shot is the one at the very top of this piece, of Alike looking through the window and the audience seeing her reflection. Perhaps it represents the dual or dueling sides of Alike’s personality: the one she wishes to be, and the one she’s forced to present.
Pariah is a film that reminds moviegoers why risks should be taken in film, why newer, fresher faces should be onscreen, and why directors should be allowed to tell personal stories, especially when they’re voices that are typically lost in the shuffle of popular, male-dominated, Hollywood fanfare.
Pariah is a story about one young woman, but it has the ability to touch many.