Pariah ★★★★½

100 Movies Challenge #66

I'd heard about this movie a couple of months ago. Writer/director Dee Rees was being interviewed by Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment, a brilliant podcast. I don't know why it took me this long to catch up on it, but I'm glad I did.

I hate it when people call a movie "important". But I am nothing if not a hypocrite, and so I'll go ahead and call Pariah an important movie. It's important because it puts lesbians and black people front and center. That never happens. I just hope Dee Rees is able to keep making movies, because she has a gift for creating characters that you can get to know with almost no dialogue.

It's an important queer film that treats the subject of coming out with grace. I don't think I've ever seen a character struggle with sexuality in such a heartbreaking way. It's not that Alike is questioning her sexuality - we see another character do that. Alike knows she's a lesbian. But it's coming to terms with being comfortable with who she is. I've never related to the teen movies where the ugly girl (who's a total babe once she shakes the flakes) transforms and gets the guy and knows exactly what to say and do. I just can't comprehend what it must be like to be so confident and so comfortable in your own skin.

But I relate to Alike. I know this girl. I am, to an extent, this girl. But this isn't your blah Bella Swan onto whom I can project my fantasies. This is a character who has a real life. She's complex and emotional and trying so hard to bury that emotion, but unable to keep it from bursting forth. She has an annoying, albeit caring, sister, she has a rift with her mother which has her leading a life of lies (the scene on the bus where she first takes off her hat and shirt and puts on the earrings just stabbed me in the gut), she has a troubled but ultimately decent relationship with her father, a complicated relationship with a friend/mentor/dildo purveyor - the scene with the white strap-on was hilarious and will probably end up as the photo for many a college thesis - and so on. She is a straight-A poet-to-be who is also moody and sulky and rude. She's not your typical teenage nymph.

Oh. And this girl is black. Every main character in this film is black. That never happens. It's the sad, disgraceful truth, but it's 2013 and the racebending of Avatar: The Last Airbender happened only three years ago. The tentpole superhero films are all about white males (with Scarlett Johansson wrapped in leather thrown in for ass pouting posters).

Here's the shocking, earth-shattering thing: I stopped thinking about the color of the character's skin after the initial "more than two black people in a room, talking with each other? Doesn't this break some sort of Hollywood code?" And I am the definition of white - my family is Irish on both sides. I think the most racial mixing that ever happened was when my uncle married a Danish woman. But guess what? Just because you can't see yourself in every movie, doesn't mean you can't relate to the characters. I really wish Hollywood - and indeed indie film makers in general - would see that. Look at the Fast and Furious franchise-it's awesome and makes a shitload of money, and no one gives a shit that half the cast isn't white. Why can't movies reflect the diversity of the real world? Why can't they take so-called "risks" in casting. It would make the world a better place, and would have made Spiderman a better movie (seriously, one more superhero movie about a white guy saving the world and I'm gonna puke-though I'm not because I love superhero movies, or at least the idea of them...dammit!) If I could only relate to reflections of myself, I'd never be able to love movies like Raging Bull or Lawrence of Arabia or Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Pariah. Then there's that devastating quote by Junot Diaz: "If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves." I go mad every time I see a film where the female characters are used poorly. I get frustrated when I see a non-white character used just to check some diversity box. But I cannot imagine how soul shattering it must be to have no hero who looks like you.

So this movie is really important. This movie is about black middle class America. There is no white POV character for the mainstream audience to latch on to. I used to watch Smart Guy and Sister Sister when I was a kid, but outside of the odd Nickelodeon sitcom and The Wire, I don't think I've ever seen a black family portrayed on screen in such a layered complex way. Usually it's at a dinner table where they're thanking God for making them perfect a minute before the white football coach arrives with a football scholarship, ten minutes before a cross is burned on the lawn.

Pariah isn't a perfect film. Sometimes it suffers from the over-determined indie shaky cam syndrome (seriously, indie film makers, buy a fucking tripod. Or steal a stool). The smaller moments work really, really well. I loved the conversation about music, which has the wave of a sort of flippant arrogance every snobby teenager can muster so easily ("who do I like? You wouldn't know. They're on the fringe. Like, really out there") and the delight which comes with the discovery of a common bond when you find out someone likes some obscure band or book or movie that makes you realize you're not alone. I loved the dynamics with the family. Rees does a fantastic job fleshing out even the smallest players (Alike's poetry mentor was fantastic) so that when shit goes down, it goes down hard: Alike's family are complicated. It would be so easy to make her father a pure hero figure, but Rees knows that's cheap and gives us a scene with a phone call to slap on several more layers onto this family situation.

The performances are uniformly excellent. I want to see more of Adepero Oduye. Honestly, when the movie began, I wasn't sure if she was a boy or girl - well, I knew she was a girl, but Oduye has an outer edge that's distinctly masculine, a set to her jaw. But when she has to be more feminine, she's strikingly beautiful. But best of all is her smile. Her smile steals the movie. It's a gift, and we only see it a few times in the film. I've never seen a smile like it. The same could be said for this movie.