Dee Rees' Pariah (2011) could and should be the beginning of the next wave in black American or African-American cinema, but don't let that notion box the film into any specific category or genre. Writer/director Rees offers us contemporary American cinema at its finest. Pariah is the story of a black family trying to stay whole while fighting against infidelity, public opinion and internal disagreements. There are no superfluous lines, shots, or scenes in this film where every moment matters as we witness individuals struggle with their core values, which eventually collide in a storm of fear and desire.
This is a film about a black family of four -- mother, father and two daughters. It is about their friendships, belief systems, identity and loss. This is a film that illuminates the deepest emotional spaces between generations, friends and family members. This is a film that traverses the sensitive and vulnerable connective tissue between inner life and external realities. Rees certainly knows her art, relying on her superbly written script and our familiarity with the universal story of growing up. The core narrative is tightly nestled in a seemingly gentle but intense swirl of conflicting family values and peer pressures. She obviously respects our intelligence and has no trouble entrusting audiences with complex and sometimes contradictory characters.
All of her actors deliver powerfully authentic and heartfelt characters that reverberate with emotions, even when scenes and characters are delivered to us in silence. Adepero Oduye embodies the main character Alike (Lee) who struggles with the very texture, tone and nature of her sexuality, which unfolds in the context of a poetic coming of age story. She delivers what Richard Dyer calls "inner life" in perfect pitch.
Lee's mother Audrey is played by Kim Wayans, who gifts us one of the most complex black female characters I have seen in years. She now ranks among some of my favorite matriarchs; Mary Alice as Suzie in Charles Burnette's To Sleep with Anger (1990); Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant in Julie Dash's Daughter's of the Dust (1991); or Ruby Dee as Lucinda Purify in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991). She is at once determined and misguided, desirous of strengthening her family and yet contributing to its tensions and fractures. Wayans' walks the razors edge of her role, perfectly balanced between the entrapments of her values, grounded in religious beliefs, and her love for her family. In many ways, thanks to her performance and the Rees direction, her suffering is rendered as intensely as Lee's. Charles Parnell as Lee's father (Arthur), Aasha Davis as the love interest (Bina), and Pernell Walker as best friend (Laura) also deliver complex and convincing performances that oscillate between personal desire and external pressures, between public and private.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Laura knocks on her mother's door to tell her she got her GED. Here we experience the depth of story and character that makes this film extraordinary. Rees permits the delivery of a well-formed yet until now absent character, Laura's mother. In this extended moment we are able to understand the very nature of their difficult and emotional relationship, where the mother never speaks. Fortunately for us there are many such moments in the film. Seeing Pariah reminded me of the experience of watching the best of classical Hollywood cinema, where our full and complete engagement was demanded, what my colleagues at NYU Ella Shohat and Bob Stam call a "multi-sensorial experience."