Wherever the bird with no feet flew she found trees with no limbs. —Audre Lorde
It is audacious for Dee Rees to begin Pariah with an image of Black women that today’s film is all too comfortable with, a scantily-clad pole dancer, and then cut to her film’s protagonist, Alike, a character that has little precedent in commercial film—a thoughtful, searching Black Lesbian teenager who feels out of place among the strongly defined gender roles of the Lesbian club she is at with her best friend from the neighborhood, Laura. It is part of Pariah’s success that writer-director Rees builds these questions about race and gender representation into the film naturally, as a reflection of Alike’s own exploration of her identity and desire.
The funniest such scene involves a “white” strap-on dildo that leads to a disastrous attempt at romance. And if it is impossible to discuss that without sounding kind of nasty, in fact it is an incredibly touching, innocent moment. That strap-on represents desire displaced and twisted, much as the switchblades and hot rods in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955) did, before those images became teen movie clichés.
Pariah actually has a lot in common with Rebel without a Cause, including the pained family dynamics—with the super-uptight mother as the weakest characterization in either film, although Kim Wayans does a good job in an unsympathetic part. Adepero Oduye is as much a revelation as James Dean. She portrays Alike with all the luminosity required for a new type of character. When she smiles, shyly and knowingly, you might be watching the first-ever filmed smile, or some classic moment of Lillian Gish or Nina Mae McKinney. Her performance is about as far from cliché as one can go.
Pariah also touches upon class differences, even as between A-student Alike’s ability to impress teachers with her poetry and go on to college contrasted with Laura’s struggle to stay off the streets by working low-paying jobs and to get her GED. This is the world as most of us experience it—with relatively few real “bad guys,” but lots of hurt and precious little warmth to go around.
Leaving home for college won’t be the end of Alike’s story. The tangle of pathologies—capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia—that make up so much of American life today will continue to surround her as they do all of us. But we see the beginning of her voice, as she struggles to speak for herself—a true daughter of Audre Lorde, and all who fought to create the space for Black Lesbians’ voices to be heard. With any justice, the revelations in Pariah should become a beginning of a generation’s story. If not then the worse for us all, as usual. But see it, you’ll be blown away.
I recently watched Brother to Brother, a partly fictional/partly true story about a radical Queer artist circle within the Harlem Renaissance that called themselves the Niggerati. It was a surprisingly good film that attempts to introduce an important tendency from the 1920s to a younger audience today….
Well-known artists like Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston were in this milieu, as well as lesser known artists like Wallace Thurman and Richard Bruce Nugent….
[I]t represents (as far as I know) one of the first openly Queer tendencies within the Harlem Renaissance and it had an explicit class critique of the Black middle class (what the artists called the Black bourgeoisie). This tendency should be contextualized in important historical developments of their period that were shaping a new generation of Black folks, a “new negro”….
The film Brother to Brother portrays their critique as total. The Niggerati were frustrated by the self-censorship as well as white-imposed censorship on Black artists, which they felt reflected efforts by the Black middle class to present an acceptable Black art that fit the image of Black folks that the white establishment wanted to see. The Niggerati desired instead an open exploration of issues in the Black community, from Queer sexualities to interracial relationships to the lived class experience of Black proletarians.
What I especially like is the ethos among the Niggerati artists….They were bold, undaunted by the condemnations from Black “leaders” and middle class artists. This is an important reminder for us today, in a climate where militant ideas and actions are frowned upon by the right and much of the left, that it takes passion, conviction and confidence to advance and expand the struggle for, and expression of, liberation….
So that’s the partly true story within the film. The partly fictional story is about the developing relationship between an elderly Richard Bruce Nugent and a younger Queer Black artist who is going to school in New York City. The younger character, Perry…gets kicked out of his family’s home for being Gay. He gets ridiculed by his Black classmates for bringing up questions of homophobia and sexual oppression rather than focusing solely on racial oppression. (Perry questions, are the two mutually exclusive?) He gets physically attacked for being Queer. He is objectified by white lovers and friends who either knowingly or unknowingly fetishize his skin color, his supposedly racial features, etc.
The film is a little mechanical at certain points but overall presents a compelling historical and fictional account of the complex relationships between race, gender, sexuality and class. So go peep it!
—From Nothing but a Human, by L Boogie