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 carry the weight.
ODUYE: I felt it right after I knew I was going to be doing the feature. I had played the lead in the short version of Pariah. The short had done really well on the film festival circuit, so people were expecting a lot from the feature. It was this weird space where I had already done the short and when I made that, I didn’t have any expectations; with the feature I was worried about not messing it up and bringing something fresh to the role.
Very quickly I expressed that to Dee, and she put the kibosh on all my worries and fears and told me that I had been working on this for a while and I didn’t need to read anything more or do anything more. That was something I needed to hear. So I let it go and just jumped right in. When we started shooting, it was fine, just fine. It was like a dream come true to have a role like this in a project like this.
EBONY: Dee, on the first day of shooting on your first feature film, what is it like? You had 1000 eyes on you watching to see if you know what you’re doing.
REES: I focus as a director on the moment in front of me. I focus on this scene and making it the best it can be. I’m working with a community of artists—a cinematographer, art director, the editor, lighting crew and the actors. So in that moment, nothing else matters except let’s make this scene the best scene possible. You focus on the scene in front of you and don’t worry about the end or what people are going to say or think because you’ll never escape the “gaze,” and you’ll never get to your true self.
EBONY: I read that you even once sold your apartment to raise money to make the film. It was real struggle, like for any film regardless of budget, to make the film. What kept you going?
REES: Yeah, making Pariah was for six years a real labor of love, but what keeps you in it is the belief in the story, the belief in the characters, the belief that this story has to be told by any means. So that’s why I sold my apartment. If we didn’t invest in ourselves, how could we ask others to invest in us?
You never give up. You do have your ups and downs, but this film not being shot was never an option. So you have your bad days. You don’t get that phone call back, you don’t get the e-mail, you get the 500th “No!” But at the end of the day, you stay relentless, turning over every rock and refusing to take no for an answer, and then it turns out you need, like, only nine yesses. So there’s never any point where you think, ‘This was never going to happen’; it’s just a matter of when.
EBONY: Adepero, with the success of the film, how do you keep your mind clear of all that Hollywood B.S. you’re now encountering?
ODUYE: As an artist, all you can do is to do your best work on the screen. Everything else, positive or negative, is subjective. It doesn’t make the film any more than it is or make it any less than it is. It doesn’t change the nature of the thing itself. I just focus on the work.
EBONY: Were there scenes in the film that were much more difficult to do than others?
ODUYE: Yeah, but it depended on the day and what I had done that week, so at a certain point I began to feel really raw, as if I wanted to close back up. For me, it was constantly pushing myself because I already knew Dee trusted me and had complete faith in what I could do. I never for a moment felt she doubted or wasn’t sure if I could push myself because I knew she had my back. I pushed myself to go, to go further and deeper with my vulnerability and being open to be able to go into those places that my character in the film had to go.
For example, that last scene in the film with Kim Wayans, who plays my mother, when I tell her that I love her. Things came up unexpectedly, and I was surprised by my reaction during that scene. Dee would hear me out and she was like, “It’s OK. We’ll try it a different way,” and that was sort of the process throughout the shooting.
EBONY: As a side issue, Adepero, I have to ask you what was it like doing that New York Times photo spread and video shoot recently where they had famous actors including George Clooney and Brad Pitt dressed up as famous movie villains and you were Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde.
ODUYE: It was so much fun. They asked me if I had any ideas, and I told them either Eve Harrington from All About Eve or [Bonnie from] Bonnie and Clyde. So they liked the Bonnie and Cycle idea, and they told me all about their idea using squibs and I said yes! I love to throw myself into stuff like that, and I love action films. It was so much fun. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! [laughs]
EBONY: Finally, I have to ask: How do your parents feel about Pariah?
REES: My parents saw the film for the first time two weeks ago, and they had a 180-degree breakthrough experience. Straight Black Christian parents. They love me, they’re proud of me and they feel everyone needs to see this film. So it shows that through the power of film, people can change.