It’s depressing that queer storytelling is still regarded as something rare, unique, or extraordinary. Even in an age where queer characters populate more films and TV shows, the voices from these characters are usually just a footnote rather then the main subject. The film 54, from 1998, pops to mind. Named after and set in New York’s legendary, disco era Studio 54, its story focusses not on the club’s flamboyant (though closeted) owner, Steve Rubell, or even on the club itself. Instead, it focusses on the dreams and hopes of a fictitious cute straight boy, played by Ryan Phillipe, who works at the club. Wasted opportunity doesn’t even begin to describe this movie.
Sadly, there are even queer folks who think that queer stories have been done to death, including stories about AIDS and coming out stories. We can delude ourselves into thinking such things, until we remember that the boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-in-the-end storyline continues to thrive in endless variations and thus gets retold over and over. Queer folks can tell their stories over and over, too, with equal variance and nuance. There are many stories to be told.
Dee Rees, the writer and director of Pariah begins her story thus: we are in Brooklyn in a dimly lit club filled with women, all eyes on the stage while a pole dancer does her thing. The sound system blasts music with lyrics that focus unabashedly on the female anatomy. There are no boys, cute, white, straight, or otherwise, to be found. Instead, hidden in the back is the 17 year old protagonist, Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-ke), or Le for short, played by Adepero Oduye. She is shy, very intelligent — she’s an aspiring poet and an A-student taking AP English — and has a very religious mother (Audrey, played by very effectively by Kim Wayans) who fears her tomboyish daughter might be too manly for her own good. Despite her mother’s misgivings and harassment, Le is determined to explore her sexuality and hang with other lesbians, including her friend Laura, played by Pernell Walker, someone her mother particularly loathes.
I like the characters and relationships this movies offers. They all ring true. Laura has a tough, take-no-prisoners shell which masks various vulnerabilities. Her most moving scene is when she passes her GEDs and goes home to tell her estranged mother, only to face rejection again. Laura’s sensitivity to rejection leads to a strain in her relationship with Le, when the latter begins hanging with someone else. But her love for Le means that she is willing to step back and give her space as well as be there for her when crisis strikes.
Le’s relationship with her father is the most interesting and satisfying in the film. I had a friend in college who said that after she came out, she and her father used to cruise chicks together. Le and her father Arthur, played by Charles Parnell, don’t engage in that activity, but I could see where it might be possible at some future point beyond the range of the film. While religious dogma keeps Audrey from being able to love her daughter without preconditions, Arthur does not have this problem. Though preoccupied with his own problems, including working multiple shifts as a police officer to keep his family in a comfortable setting, he places no conditions on his love for Le. He has anxieties, mostly that his daughter lives a safe and happy life, but he does not allow his anxieties to keep him from expressing his love for Le. They are able to communicate and their affection for each other means that they can also communicate without saying a word.
Le’s younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) also comes off as a real person. The two bicker and snipe at each others, as siblings are often wont to do, but their affection for each other runs deeper. As their parents fight downstairs (verbally, not physically, a welcomed relief), Sharonda goes into Le’s room where they comfort each other. During this tender moment, Sharonda confides to Le that she’s OK with her.
This leaves Le’s relationship with her mother as being the most strained. Wayans plays Audrey as someone who seems uncomfortable with everything around her, not just her dykish daughter. Nothing ever seems good enough, though it is Le that receives the brunt of her displeasures. She tries to remold her oldest daughter in her own image by buying her feminine clothing to wear and setting her up with appropriate girls to hang with. Though in the end all of these efforts end in failure and further estrangement. Le’s and Laura’s mothers parallel each other. Both live isolated lives as a result of their rigidity. Laura’s mother is seen hiding behind a door during her daughter’s visit. Le’s mother tends to sit alone and apart from coworkers during lunch. One wonders if her coworkers get as annoyed with her righteousness as Le does.
Isolation, rejection, finding oneself, friendship, and love without preconditions are all universally human themes. One does not need to dress them up in a straight jacket in order to tell them effectively, something with Dee Rees demonstrates with her remarkable first film. Pariah tells its story eloquently and unflinchingly.