Susan Granger’s review of “Pariah” (Focus Features)
Defined as “a person without status, a rejected member of society, an outcast,” the titular character, played by Adepero Oduye, is a slight, boyish 17 year-old African-American woman named Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay) who lives with her bickering parents and 15 year-old sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. A good student, she enjoys writing poetry and is particularly expressive about butterflies breaking out of cocoons.
While her stern, strait-laced, suave police detective father, Arthur(Charles Parnell), is into denial, her conventional, devoutly Christian, upwardly mobile mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is eager to introduce Alike to a colleague’s prim-and-proper daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), who attends the same public school. But feisty Alike realizes that she’s homosexual and is looking for a lesbian lover – with the support of her ‘butch’ best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who accompanies her to a gay women’s strip club where she attempts to wear a strap-on dildo and demonstrates her readiness to experiment in this underground society.
Written and directed by Dee Rees, a former marketing exec for Proctor & Gamble and Shering Plough, it’s admittedly a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story which Ms. Rees amplified from a short work that was shown at Sundance in 2007. It’s of several new heartfelt films by black filmmakers that have redefined assumptions about what a “black film” can be. For many years, black exploitation films were usually crime melodramas, set in the ‘hood – until Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” etc., along with Tyler Perry’s comedies and “Precious.” But black cinema has come a long way, a road epitomized by the success of last year’s “The Help.” In the new wave are Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road” and Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky,” and it’s no surprise that Rees, Brown and Green attended Spike Lee’s classes at New York University. Spike Lee serves as the executive producer of “Pariah.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pariah” is a sincere, street-wise 6, destined to reassure troubled teens searching for their identity – and their parents.