'Pariah' Filmmaker Scores Acclaim

Writer-director Dee Rees tells The Root how her own coming-out story inspired the film.

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Dee Rees (Getty Images)

Pariah, a stunner of a movie that opens on Dec. 28, begins simply, with a quote from the late Audre Lorde: "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." That line comes from Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the rapturous 1982 memoir that documents Lorde's rebirth as a lesbian and as an artist.

It is the perfect way to open Pariah, a raw, affecting and finely drawn film about the sexual awakening of a 17-year-old teenager -- and the turbulence that follows her coming out as a lesbian. It looks at themes of friendship, family, identity and longing with a poetic subtlety lacking in most films today, but especially just about every African-American-themed movie that rolls into the multiplex.

Pariah, which began as a student project and was shot in 18 days on a budget of less than $500,000, has blazed into this year's busy holiday film season with plenty of critical praise in tow.

At the Sundance Film Festival, the drama, produced and distributed by Focus Features, attracted supporters and buzz and won the Excellence in Cinematography Award. Last month Pariah's writer-director, Dees Rees, was the surprise winner of the Gotham Independent Film breakthrough-director honor, and both Rees and star Adepero Oduye made the Hollywood Reporter's Next Gen Class of 2011.

The love fest continued on Dec. 11 in a New York Times magazine cover story celebrating the season's hot films. Oduye, whose IMDB page really is just a page, was photographed in a splashy spread alongside the likes of Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney and Viola Davis.

Standing in the eye of the media storm, first-time director Rees is pinching herself. Her previous experience -- as intern script supervisor on Spike Lee's Inside Man and When the Levees Broke -- in no way prepared her for this dizzying rise. She wrote a first draft of Pariah's script in 2005 as a short and shot it as her thesis for NYU's Graduate Film program. In an interview with The Root, Rees, 34, calls the movie deeply personal.

"This is the story I wanted to tell because it's something that I lived as I was coming out," says Rees, who was raised in Nashville, Tenn., and now lives in Long Beach, Calif. "A big part of my struggle was not just knowing that I loved women, but who I was in the world. I had to learn to be OK with myself, and I wanted to dramatize that."

Like Alike, the central character in her film, Rees struggled with her parents about her sexuality. She remembers feeling like a pariah. "When I first came out, my parents tried to have an intervention," she says. They bombarded her with cards, emails and letters and Bible verses. "They thought I had changed, like I had come under some influence and I wasn't myself.

"It took some time to get them to understand that my sexuality was not a choice," she continues. "And that I was the same person that I always had been."

Growing up, Rees says, she found a home in books by African-American women. "I always felt a little awkward, but I didn't know how to articulate it," says Rees, who is personable, down-to-earth and still bookish. "My mom had this suitcase of books under the stairs where I could read anything I wanted. I immersed myself in Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison -- all this womanist literature."

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