‘Pariah’ Filmmaker Scores Acclaim

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

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.”

The books provided a lifeline. “I felt connected to them, as an artist and connected to their experience,” she says. “Reading made me feel like I was OK, like I wasn’t alone.”

Though the movie is grounded in the coming-out experience, it is at once specific and universal. The authenticity of its setting — the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City — and its characters strike a chord. It is a revelation to see complicated, flesh-and-blood characters in our current Hollywood shuffle and to witness fully realized female protagonists break out of the swamp of the emasculating girlfriend, sassy best friend, uptight lawyer, abusive mama and gold digger.

That was intentional. Rees says she worked very closely — and intensely — with her actors, including Kim Wayans. In her first non-comedy role, Wayans plays Alike’s mother, who is grappling with both her daughter’s sexuality and the fault lines in her own marriage.

Rees says she is grateful to Wayans, Oduye and the other actors who signed on to a low-budget production with a novice director. “I was in love with my cast,” says Rees. “I tried to be true to the characters, and they got that. They understood that I wanted to tell a story that felt really authentic, and we were all very invested in that.”

Rees hopes to bring a similar level of authenticity to her next projects — albeit with brand-name stars and bigger budgets. She is working on a television series for HBO starring Viola Davis and recently finished the script for a movie called BOLO — police-speak for “be on the lookout” — that Focus Features will also produce.

In the midst of her moment, Rees says she sometimes still feels like that girl curled under the stairs, head buried in a book, worried about what her parents think.

A few weeks ago, she brought them up from Nashville to the glittery New York City premiere of Pariah. As she walked the red carpet, she wondered what her parents would think, seeing the film for the first time. “I was very nervous and scared,” Rees recalls. “But it was amazing. They told me how proud they were and how much they loved me. It was a day I honestly didn’t think would come. It was magical.”

Read Senior Editor Teresa Wiltz’s review of Pariah here.

Linda Villarosa is the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and a regular contributor to The Root.