Life will break you.
It’s a truth that can take a lifetime to understand: life will break you. Between the things we cannot control and the repercussions of our own choices, the world is a chaotic place. Much of it, when we’re truly honest with ourselves, is so dependent on factors we can’t even see unless we were to examine them, a third party to our own experiences, objective and detached. Of course, this is impossible for many reasons. Above all else, it is impossible because of how innately human it is to simply want to connect.
Perhaps this is why film, all art even, can persist so unequivocally. Where societies crumble, art forms still persist; where individuals fade away, their artwork remains. We love to examine art because it allows us to connect deeply, even for a moment, to someone else, something else. It is visceral and heightened in a way not unlike moments of pure emotion—ecstasy, grief, and rage. Because of this, film is perhaps one of the most successful mediums due to its almost purely sensory experience. Sights and sounds reflected back to us, sculptures of light and time surrounding us in a darkened theater: film is truly a spectacle designed to tap into the human soul. What makes film so powerful is not it’s tapping into the primal alone, but also its ability to create a story and a world that pulls its audience in, even for a moment. It is film’s great testament to inspire empathy, and it is the work of a great filmmaker to make this emotion so acute, so realized, and so very personal that we sometimes lose our breath, even ourselves in the moment of it all.
Pariah is about a teenage girl, Alike, as she navigates her queer sexuality amidst the day-to-day pressures of growing up. As Alike hides her lesbianism from her family, she attempts to find a first girlfriend. Adepero Oduye is a master class in acting in this film (she didn’t get a shout out from Meryl herself for nothing), and she is also its strong foundation. She captures so completely the entire role, nimbly walking the same balancing acts as Alike, performing one way, but feeling another. Oduye lays it all out for the audience, expressing these deeper emotions through subtle tics and movements. She is simply exceptional. Kim Wayans, playing Alike’s mother Audrey, is just as exhilarating to watch, as she puts up her own deceptions in order to cope with a loneliness and detachment that she is so painfully aware of, yet won’t or can’t rid herself of, especially as it evolves into a vicious cycle. What is truly masterful about the film, and all of the performances, is how organically fractured and distorted Alike’s experiences are in other characters in the film.
Pariah, above all, is an intimate exploration of identity, of what we choose to hide and choose to reveal to people, and how these choices affect our lives. It is also a painfully clear reminder of just how far we can go to avoid being alone—avoid being the pariah. Dee Rees is able to touch on something so painfully human, not just our need for connection, but also the ways we may sacrifice or shrink or amputate until we look nothing like ourselves. Each character is shown as hiding—whether it is Audrey from her coworkers or Alike from her family—but we also are shown the ways in which their authentic voices come out, for better or worse. These little details of life, of both authenticity and deception, are what give the film it’s ability to reach out and hold you breathless, as you struggle for your voice in time with each character.
What makes the film work so well is the intimate connection of the theme to every performance, every scene. This struggle donates a sort of frenetic energy to the film, but is never given true release until it becomes absolutely necessary. Through this buildup, the actors themselves not only push further back at the slowly building tension, but so too does the camerawork. Even in scenes of stillness, perhaps a tight shot of Alike’s face, there are little movements or plays of harsh light that express these underlying struggles. Between Dee Rees’s direction and Bradford Young’s cinematography, the film is so expertly crafted that it instinctively brings you towards its conclusion until the film ends and it no longer feels as though you watched Pariah, but lived it. Perhaps this subtlety is best expressed in the admittedly hilarious scene in which Alike, wearing a particularly unfortunate strap on, argues with her best friend. The scene is so natural and funny, yet there is an underlying frenzy to the camerawork, building towards Audrey’s intrusion into the room, forcing her daughter to hide her queerness once more. The scene is a painful reminder of how Audrey’s hostility and intrusion into her daughter’s life is constant and internalized—just below the surface.
This expert filmmaking is only so meaningful through its constant exploration of such very human truths. It is a film, at its essence, about creating an authentic voice, of being your truest self: who am I? Likewise, it is about how we hide and perform, building an identity that, although not true, can never be ostracized or cast out. The film functions off of deceptions and revelations, both within and without, until the characters’ internal turmoil builds to a breaking point, which proves to be either freeing or binding. It is about stepping directly into this tension, this fire, in order to confront that which has refracted and distorted into an internal wound that bleeds into the lives of those around us. And while Dee Rees is able to invite us into a world that can resonate within every human, it is important to still see how distinctly intimate this story is. It is rooted in her own personal life, in her own confrontation with her parent’s disapproval when she came out. In many ways, Moonlight owes so much to this film. And I don’t mean to imply it is because both concern queer black people, but more because this film reflects the same level of intimacy and personal connection, utilizing expert filmmaking so functional to telling its story that there is no distillation to the film for the sake of “universality.” It is a true disgrace that Pariah did not receive the same accolades as Moonlight, because both films are two of the best of the decade. It is also an unfortunate reminder of just how hard it can be for films featuring and made by queer women of color to be let into the mainstream.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say how deeply personal Pariah is in terms of my own lived experiences as a queer man. Living two lives, as well as feeling enormous pressure from the outside world concerning something as unimportant as a sexual identity, are such deeply felt experiences in the queer community, let alone the intersectionality of being a queer black woman, with the added pressures, demands, and distortions. Dee Rees’s ability to tell such a confessional story so powerfully, with no distillation, makes me want to scream how important diversity is on both sides of the camera.
I will argue this point until the end of time because of how often reviewers and audiences can view stories that feature queer characters, and then proceed to comment on the “universality” of the story or how easy it was to relate to the characters. Meaning that, instead of being able to empathize on a level that includes every aspect of an identity, they can only empathize with the most basic level of a person, ignoring the very aspects that are typically oppressed. Meaning that they are drawing from an overall mainstream culture that refuses to see people fully, particularly queer women of color. I’d argue that, with increased diversity on both sides of the camera, the overall media culture can evolve so that audiences would be able to dig deeper than reflecting on how universal themes of love, acceptance, and pain are (because duh these are universal themes) and instead reflect on how meaningful it is to be invited into a person’s life and understand the nuances of their experiences, without ever having to sacrifice any aspect of their identity.
With this in mind, the urgency of Pariah is more deeply felt. It is a film that refuses to sacrifice any one part of its story, no matter how deeply personal. It invites the viewer in through this intimacy and through its expert emotional control. It demonstrates just how cruel and damaging it is to expect others to compromise themselves, while also intimating at how these expectations reverberate within, until we become unfeeling shells. It is such a human failure to be unable to confront our own internal deceptions, while also being so critical of others and the lives they lead.
And ultimately, it is a near-perfect testament to the triumph of freedom of identity, of freedom of expression. It’s as intimate as the deepest secret, and as heartfelt as a poem. It’s a look at the people and events that can bind and scar you, but also those that will support and nurture you. It is a film that demonstrates every aspect of itself, boiling with an increasing intensity instinctively towards a climax that will leave you broken. This intensity remains—it is never ending—yet, if you are able to let it, it can be beautifully calm at times, full of energy and possibility.
Yes, you will be broken.
But finally free.
“Running is not a choice from the breaking. Breaking is freeing, broken is freedom. I am not broken, I am free.”
- Kim Wayans (and all of the adult Wayans’s) don’t get nearly as much work or quality of work as they deserve. She is truly a master of the craft.
- I also feel like I focused a crap ton on Kim Wayans and Adepero Oduye, but the whole ensemble is top notch: Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, and Pernell Walker really round out the film in an extraordinary way.
- Bradford Young also did the cinematography for Selma and Arrival, and I can’t stress enough how adept he is at capturing the most functional photography for delivering story, character, and emotion.
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