Pariah (puh-rayh-uh) noun: 1) a person without status 2) a rejected member of society 3) an outcast
I will never forget the first time my mother called me a faggot. It was Thanksgiving 2004. We had just gotten home from visiting my grandfather in the hospital. My mother and I had gotten into a fight, something that had become quite common since she was diagnosed with several serious mental illnesses in years prior. Driving home I had switched the radio station, which I assume triggered some distant memory as we began to dance a radio tango. She switched the station and I would switch it back.
Mother: “You better start showing me some damn respect. I’m your mother.”
Me: “I’ll show you some respect when you start acting like a mother.”
She went on to slap me across the face as the car was in motion causing my face to hit the driver’s side window. I swerved into oncoming lanes of traffic. Luckily, no cars were coming.
Finally, we made it home and the verbal aggressions continued. My mother looked me dead in the face with her cold, hollow eyes I thought I had become desensitized to. She venomously spewed the words, “Why don’t you suck a dick you faggot?” Suddenly, the tears streamed down my face masking whatever rage was boiling inside of me. How could my own mother say something like that to me?
This was the turbulent memory a climactic scene in Dee Rees’ Pariah brought me back to during a pre-screening of the highly anticipated film a few weeks ago. As 17-year old Alike, played by Adepero Oduye, navigates the blossoming of her sexuality, she also begins defining various parts of her identity in spite of what her mother, Audrey, wishes. Similar to my mother, Audrey, played by Kim Wayans, battles her own issues of love. Their shared issues include insecurity, living their lives based upon very rigid definitions of what it means to be a woman and mother, and perhaps even forgetting to take medication(s). Audrey’s rigid definitions meant she needed to submit to her husband for the sake of imagery, maintain a respectable (read: feminine) appearance and uphold her self against impossibly perfect standards.
Wayans’ performance is riveting, given many of us are familiar with her more comedic roles. Though some will find it hard to sympathetize with her character, Audrey is offered more humanity than I have seen tackled in other films. So often an individual possessing Audrey’s homophobic, narrow beliefs is viewed unsympathetically. We do not want to hear the stories that inform their views or why they are the way they are, despite our disagreement. We simply don’t care to listen. Pariah forces us to bear witness to some of homophobia’s catalysts, if only subliminally.
Throughout the film, I was captivated by Alike’s relationship to her mother. In one scene, I watched as Alike said exactly what she needed to say to her mother in order to begin releasing the demons her mother attempted to plant within Alike. I love you.
As tears flow down Audrey’s face (and my own), audiences capture a glimpse of the inner turmoil Audrey’s rigidity leaves with her. She is miserable. She has spent the majority of her life placing faith in ideas that have only served to isolate her. Audrey would rather remain faithful to those beliefs than begin the process of re-evaluating her relationship to those beliefs and her family.
Living in a culture that teaches us our parents are the people who will teach us about our identity, Alike and I know better. For some of us, our parents exit our lives for various reasons. It becomes our friends and lovers who help shape how we identify and express ourselves in the world. Perhaps our parents re-enter. Perhaps they don’t. As Alike’s relationship with her mother deteriorates, she spends a great deal of time talking with her best friend, Laura, played by Pernell Walker, about being sexual with other women, fantasizing and what it means to be an “AG”—a term some women of color use to identify aggressive lesbians.
Eventually Alike meets Bina, played by Aasha Davis, and their exchange provides insight and plenty of social commentary on what identity means, including a conversation on being gay gay, I do not believe it is their relationship Rees wants us focused on. It is not the obvious intimacy between Alike and Bina or Alike’s relation to Audrey that makes Pariah a love story.
The most fascinating relationship in this film is the one Alike has with her self. Beginning the film, Alike is timid about who she is and curious about what she likes. However, through her experiences with other women, like Laura, Bina and Audrey, we see Alike blossom until she can verbally confirm her parents’ suspicions and come out to her mother and father. It gets messy and scars are left, seen and unseen. Like so many of us, Alike takes her negative experiences and transforms them into a pathway for self-discovery.
Rees takes us on this journey, Alike’s expedition towards self-love and acceptance. In the film’s final scenes, Alike recites a poem written in her journal. The voice over plays as we watch Alike step into the many new beginnings of her life. She reads:
Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise.
For even breaking is opening and I am broken.
I am open.
See the love shine in through my cracks.
See the light shine out through me.
My spirit takes journey.
My spirit takes flight, and I am not running, I am choosing.
I am broken.
I am broken open.
Breaking is freeing.
Broken is freedom.
I am not broken.
I am free.
Alike’s freedom begins when she unleashes the pain her mother inflicts upon her and lovingly releases the hold her pain had. Releasing our pain is a choice. The choice is the difference between being held captive and freedom. But this wound takes time to heal.
As I left the theatre, I wondered if Alike’s path to forgiveness would be as tumultuous and expansive as my own. After all, cinema is constricted; in real time, these processes occur in phases. Forgiving her mother on-screen took less than thirty minutes; forgiving my mother in real life took several years. In relating to the story, I wondered if Alike would eventually face similar difficulties. Was the process of forgiveness over for Alike? Would she relapse? How many attempts would she make to reconcile her relationship with her mother before she deemed it hopeless? Was it hopeless? Would she eradicate the internalized homophobia from her mind? One thing was certain: Alike had the power to look in the mirror and see her beauty, inside and out.
Once You Go Black, discussing the politics of examining Black-queer-intellectual life, Robert Reid-Pharr states, “The real action of both politics and culture always takes place at the surface and in the present. Though our efforts at memorialization and recovery may prove to be incredibly important therapeutic strategies, they nonetheless would be hard-pressed to stop a war.” His sentiment expresses the significance of healing and how recovery is a part of freedom. Rees’ film is not only powerful for its narrative but also given its timing. In a moment where the spotlight has been thrust on queer youth, the political nature of Pariah lies in its ability to shine light in places the mainstream frequently overlooks.
While the film acknowledges the forging of chosen community, it also confronts homophobia in family life and how this impacts adolescence. It covers the displacement of LGBT youth who were kicked out after coming out. Yet, as we racialize and gender these numbers, they only increase. Rees’ decision to place themes of homelessness and sex work was strategic as these issues increasingly affect Black queer youth. The Center for American Progress highlights that homeless gay youth have strong racial divides. Black gay youth make up approximately forty-four percent of homeless youth, while Black transgender youth are a staggering sixty-two percent.
As a white gay man, I was able to watch and listen to Alike’s story and tackle parallels between our journeys and mothers. But I constantly had to remind myself of the distinctions separating our narratives, the obvious being I am not Black nor am I lesbian. These distinctions left me walking out of the theatre with hypothetical questions. After leaving her family behind, would Alike find community in the imaginary safety of some mythically inclusive gay metropolis or be outcast as a Black lesbian? Would she be told the money of “her kind” was not wanted in a mediocre queer establishment, as was the case in a Chicago gay nightclub in 2010?
I worry how this film will be celebrated within various queer circles, if at all. My hope is that we do not participate in the too-common practice of de-racializing films, as Pariah is clearly Black. One can count the number of white actors in this film on one hand. Then there is the obvious fact this film centers on one Black family and the complexities of their lives together. In my opinion, Pariah was intended to be a conversation film for Black communities, conversations that need to be had from within and do not need to include white folks.
I hope Pariah will not be placed within the larger queer canon of painting Black families as more homophobic than the rest of society, as we see happening in the age of Obama. Oddly enough, the people making these claims rarely offer sources or stress the pervasive reach of anti-Black racism. Some of the film’s themes are certainly universal, as other reviews have highlighted. However, I think it is imperative we continue to address this film for exactly what it is: Black lesbian cinema. As is the case with many “universally-themed” films, certain elements of the feature become less salient as they garner popularity.
One of the most beautifully bittersweet things about Pariah is that Rees does not seem too concerned with these questions. She gives this film the life it was intended to have: one version of Black lesbianism. However, the questions and challenges that surface from Alike’s inspirational narrative offer each of us an opportunity to self-reflect, as individuals working towards a collective end.
Alike’s story is told with nuance and integrity in a way many films lack today. Rees’ work does not mimic reality, it captures it. Pariah reminds us that regardless of what we have been told in life or how we have been made to feel, we are beautiful and deserving. We can, and must, heal. We are worthy of love from others but, most importantly, from ourselves.
Pariah is in select theatres January 21, 2012.