Writer and director Dee Rees' first feature film, Pariah, about the self-discovery and coming of age of a young Black lesbian in New York, is garnering the sort of acclaim and enthusiastic response that more established directors can only dream of. The film was picked up for worldwide theatrical distribution by Focus Features after it was praised at last year’s Sundance Film festival and will open nationwide this month.
A Nashville, Tenn., native, former Spike Lee intern and graduate of the NYU Graduate Film program, Rees, with her producer, Nekisa Cooper, initially made Pariah as a short film in 2005 before developing it into a feature-lenght production. The lead in both the short and feature was played by the exciting newcomer Adepero Oduye, who’s already being hailed as a major talent —even Meryl Streep has sung her praises.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to both Rees and Oduye about Pariah, the struggle to make the film and why Rees doesn’t care what some up tight naysayers may say about her film, among other things.
EBONY: Dee, I have to tell you after seeing Pariah that is not only a remarkable film, but it occurred to me that there is going to be resistance by some to see the film because they’ll have an issue with the sexuality of the lead character, a young Black gay woman trying to find herself. Does that bother you?
REES: I think the thing that we’ve seen while traveling on this promotional tour for the movie, and even before, is that the audience deserves more credit than what we’re giving them. People have been really open to the film. We’ve screened it for predominately straight Black audiences, and people are really into it. Once you get past the first scene in the club, people are seeing that it’s a film about identity. These are what Hollywood terms “churchgoing audiences”; everyone stays and says they understood the story and main character, and people could see themselves in it. So the community has rallied around it and has been accepting of it.
EBONY: That’s good to hear, because I have heard and read a few people saying: “Oh, I can’t see a film like this. Why did it have to be made?”
ODUYE: Yes, because you might look at the poster and say: “Oh boy, not another one!” [laughs] But don’t judge a book by its cover, because people will be surprised. Even though it may seem like one type of film, like a really heavy film, people will be really surprised to see a light-at-times and a dramatic-at- times film about people that captures the moment.
EBONY: Right! Pariah is not heavy or solemn or didactic. It’s actually just a coming-of-age, “feel-good” movie.
REES: That was the important thing to me as a writer while writing it. That it not be preachy, that it wouldn’t be didactic or telling you how you’re supposed to be but showing an experience. Showing a world where we meet a cross section of characters and people, and how this woman comes into herself, not only as a woman but also as an artist.
For me as an artist and a writer, I don’t read blogs or what people may say about the film because it’s all subjective. As an artist, all I can do is just put it up there on the screen; people’s response to it, positive or negative, is something you can’t control. So you can’t get caught up in that while you’re building a body of work. All I can do is tell interesting stories.
EBONY: You don’t want to read anything about your own film?
REES: Well, the producer has shared with me some wonderful things people have said about it, and I think it’s important to have positivity around the film but not to worry about what some naysayers may think or say about it. We’re concentrated on making the best art possible to keep out mission forward.
EBONY: Let me ask you this: I wouldn’t say Pariah is autobiographical, but I’m sure a lot of the film comes from personal experience.
REES: There are themes, yes. Sexuality versus spirituality, the struggle against parents and the struggle with gender indemnity, those things I went through.
EBONY: So the making of the film was somewhat cathartic for you?
REES: The writing of it was. When I wrote it back in 2005, I was writing it during my own “coming-out” process. I was getting out a lot of things I was feeling, a lot of things I was going through, so definitely it was.
EBONY: Adepero, let me ask you a question I like to ask actors. This was your first leading role in a feature film. Did you feel any extra pressure? Because the success of the movie is on your shoulders, so in a way you have to