The lesbian trope is illuminated and given a breath of fresh air in the film ‘Pariah,’ written and directed by Dee Rees and starring Adepero Oduye as Alike. The film opens with the main character Alike visiting a club with a friend named Laura. It follows Alike as she rides the bus home and lingers as Laura exits. Alike starts to change out of her “masculine” clothes and into her “regular” clothes before she gets out of the bus. This is a humiliating experience that doesn’t seem new to Alike. The pain we see in her face is something that will stay with us throughout the film.
Alike is an African American teenager growing up in New York. Her ethnicity should be mentioned since this is one of the few films that deals with a different side of homosexuality which has predominantly been a white issue. We see Alike at home and she has the traditional home life: Mother, father and younger sibling. Looks are not what they seem though as we are soon to learn. It’s obvious to Alike’s mother Audrey, played by Kim Wayans, that she is different. Alike doesn’t dress like a girl and doesn’t seem to date or be interested in school dances. This leads to Audrey trying to pigeonhole Alike into a traditional gender stereotype to soothe her own prejudices. Since society relies heavily on the gender binary it’s not totally unbelievable that Audrey would act like this. If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to dress like a girl. If you’re a boy you dress like one and there’s no room for anything in-between. Another example of this is when Alike and her father Arthur, played by Charles Parnell, visit a local store where two men begin to whisper about Alike’s appearance. Arthur tries to diffuse the situation by saying “You know you’re daddy’s little girl,” therefore putting her in the proper gender role to placate his own bias. Alike is no dummy and begins to slowly fight back.
Now, this film is not without some predictability. In later scenes Alike is forced to hang out with a girl named Bina, played by Aasha Davis. In an unsurprising turn of events, the two girls share an intimate night together only to see Bina completely reject Alike in the light of day. A painful and necessary lesson that Alike must endure in order to find her true self. There’s not many characters in this film but the ones that are shown have incredible depth and vulnerability.
Laura, Alike’s best friend, is a butch lesbian with an absent mother. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Laura goes to her mother’s house and is greeted with disdain. Her mother barely acknowledges her existence and shuts the door in Laura’s face. Alike and Laura depend and lean on each other for support because they can very much relate to what the other has been through. Alike finally comes out to her parents and is met with a shockingly violent assault from her mother which sends Alike running from the house. The next night her family sits at the table as if nothing happened. Her little sister is the only one to bring up Alike’s absence. We know though that Alike will be just fine, as she tells her father that she is not running but choosing, a beautiful way of basically saying goodbye.
I hope to see more films like this that are centered on the minority aspect of the LGBTQ community. Pariah helps to re-examine traditional gender roles while telling a truly heartbreaking yet significant and important story that everyone should watch.