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."
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.