“The thing you can aspire to most as an artist is to make a film that lasts—to make a film that still makes people feel something or just makes people want to watch it again. So, I'm glad it’s aged well. I can't believe it's been 10 years already,” shares Dee Rees, the Pariah writer/director, via Zoom.
Her selection as the first Black American woman director to the prestigious Criterion Collection, which seeks to preserve a select number of classic and contemporary films representing the best of the artform, is recognition of the enduring power of a coming-of-age story about a young Black girl evolving into herself and her identity as a queer woman, as well as her genius as a director. Rees joins Martinique’s Euzhan Palcy and her 1989 film A Dry White Season in what is today a sorority of just two Black women in a mostly white, all boys club.
For Rees, now in her early 40s, Pariah was a journey much longer than its feature film release date suggests. Instead, it’s a story the Nashville native had, at that point in her personal evolution, been writing her entire life. “I first wrote Pariah back in 2005 or so. And it's funny because I first wrote the feature version and, for me, personally, I was going through my own coming out process,” she says. When she needed a short film to graduate from school, she turned to this story and the result, she says, “felt explosive.”
Sadly, support for her short film didn’t come from where she expected. “Many of the Black film festivals wouldn't play it,” she says. “I think Urbanworld played it, but it still felt like, in terms of the Black film festivals, there was a little bit of homophobia, and they wouldn’t program it.” Excitement from queer and mainstream festivals, however, fueled anticipation for a feature film.
Finishing the feature film about 17-year-old Alike, nicknamed Lee, coming into her own as a young queer woman raised in a conservative two-parent home in Brooklyn, as her mother Audrey fights against her fear as well as the growing realization that her daughter is gay, was a marathon. While the film was shot in December 2009, financial constraints kept it from being released until 2011. Despite the two-year gap from filming the feature and the nearly five-year gap from the short, the response at the Sundance Film Festival was electric. For Rees, Pariah “felt like it came into a world that was [finally] ready for it.”
“We had people, gay and straight, Black and white, coming up to us saying we told part of their story,” Rees recalls. “Even people who couldn't relate to Alike’s journey as a teen were feeling ‘Oh, but I have that struggle with my parents on other aspects of who they feel I'm supposed to be.’ And, for the Black lesbian community, it felt like a big affirmation.”
Adepero Oduye’s performance as Alike astonishes even now. Oduye’s ability to capture both Alike’s sense of discovery, her poetic spirit, and, most importantly, her will to be seen in her truth is among the greatest performances of any actor. Rees’ decision to render Alike both bold and without shame or fear was such a departure from so many screen depictions of the queer experience, not to mention that few films, even today, center the Black lesbian experience.
Oduye's performance was not the only one that soars. Kim Wayans remains criminally underrated for her frustratingly believable performance as the reticent, middle-class, religious mother who simply refuses to accept her daughter is gay and unbothered. There’s Charles Parnell’s emotionally agonizing performance as Alike’s father Arthur who seems cool adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his daughter’s sexuality, especially since he has secrets as well. Other standouts are Pernell Walker and Sahra Mellesse’s representations of pure and unconditional love as Alike’s best friend and potential love interest Laura and younger sister Sharonda.
For Rees, Pariah hit very close to home when her parents, with whom she had essentially been estranged early in her own journey, attended a very intimate screening in New York City’s Tribeca. “After the screening, I was looking for my mom. I couldn’t find her. I was like ‘oh my gosh, she’s upset; she left.’ So I was scared. I was freaking out,” she recalls.
When Rees finally found her, her mother was “hugging Adepero saying ‘this is so amazing. You guys told this story. This is so important to tell.’”
Looking back, it was her mother who first sparked her love for film. “I used to like watching tons of movies. It was honestly something me and my mom did a lot. Mom would get anything with anybody Black in it,” she fondly recalls.
At Florida A&M, where she did the five-year MBA program, with no thoughts of becoming a filmmaker, she was empowered by its “air of self-determination” and its consistent mantra that “you are in charge of your life and whatever it is you are trying to make happen, you can make it happen if you put the labor into it.’”
She also saw an independent film come to life with fellow FAMU students Rob Hardy and Will Packer’s Chocolate City. Today, Hardy is a successful director on the small screen, with such credits as Grey’s Anatomy, Power and All American. And Packer, of course, is behind Girls Trip and the Ride Along franchise, among many others. That empowerment only continued at NYU Film School under the tutelage of Spike Lee and the school’s other Black professors and filmmakers.
Rees, whose films Bessie for HBO and Mudbound for Netflix won multiple Emmys and scored numerous Oscar nominations, knows this Criterion Collection honor is much bigger than herself. “I think [my inclusion] illustrates that we have to broaden the canon of film because, when you are in film school, you don’t see Black women in the Criterion Collection, and the insinuation is that there’s none that are good enough, and that is not true. So [my inclusion] refutes that point and I think there’s going to be many more to come.”