On Wednesday night, a group of thirty people gathered at the LGBTQ Community Centre of Montreal for a screening of the critically acclaimed film Pariah (2011). The film, which was directed by Dee Rees and produced by Nekisa Cooper, first premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was awarded for its cinematography, storyline and acting. Aside from its status amongst independent film circles, the film occupies an iconic standing among Black and queer communities. The audience, comprised primarily of Black queer women, expressed enthusiasm that paralleled its initial success with critics.
The organizers of the screening could not hold back their excitement as they introduced Pariah as one of the most significant films to address queerness within the Black community. Initially, Amandine, an organizer from the Arc en Ciel d’Afrique Committee for Women, mistakenly introduced the film as a 90s release; she later revealed that she had watched the movie so many times it seemed as though it had always existed in her memory. Another organizer confessed that they had watched it over twenty times already, demonstrating the film’s profound resonance with its audiences.
Pariah is a difficult film to introduce. It primarily follows Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), who is Black, as she embraces her queerness while still adapting to her community’s conventional expectations. Her identity is slowly built upon all of the roles she plays, whether that occurs as daughter, sister, friend, or partner. Instead of only fixating on Alike’s development in relation to her parents and younger sister, Rees chose to construct around Alike a network of storylines that intersect and deviate from her own while never distracting. The storylines delve into the tension inside Alike’s house as her parents navigate both their parental limits and the cracks in their relationship, as well as into the life of her friend Laura, who acts as both support and foil to Alike’s identity. Additionally, Rees weaves other characters into Alike’s story to either guide her towards success, like her English teacher, or further unravel layers of her identity, as her friend Bina does.
Another organizer confessed that they had watched it over twenty times already, demonstrating the film’s profound resonance with its audiences.
While Rees builds the film’s skeleton with intricate storylines, the veracity of Alike’s experiences manifest through the director’s ability to lead the audience into multiple conversations at once. As the film progresses, it slowly unravels questions of sexual identity and femme representation. Alike struggles to reconcile her own femininity with her mother’s expectations, which Alike adopts in a survival effort to conform to her community’s standards. Rees also challenges the audience with conceptions of sexual identity and how power dynamics come into play; Alike’s timid queerness is placed next to Laura’s need for loud sexual expression, depicted as an uncomfortable Alike tries using a strap-on, as well as Bina’s own ambiguous sexuality, mirroring Alike’s hesitation and fear. Despite covering such dense material, Dee Rees masterfully orchestrated a multidimensional story throughout the entire film.
As this sequence began, the audience’s excitement quieted into an anticipatory hush, and the black screen opened up onto a shock of colour and sound. A fast sequence of shots hinted at a bustling scene of nightlife bursting with deep purples and yellows complemented by a disorienting sound collage. The quick sequence then faded out and back in with that of a pole dancer’s elegant movement. As the screen alternated between the smooth and sensual dancer and Alike’s face of marvel, a perception tilt carries the audience into a whirlwind, as if Alike is immersing us in her world. The scene itself features continuous shifts in colour from rich reds and solid blues to pink and violet lights. The depth of the colours evoked a visual metaphor for Alike’s rich and complex growth.
As the film progresses, it slowly unravels questions of sexual identity and femme representation.
The discussion that followed affirmed the film’s position as a project associated with realism rather than imagination. One member of the audience was quick to announce: “C’est la vérité!” (“It’s the truth!”) immediately following the credits. Soon after, the majority of the audience agreed by sharing their own anecdotes, many of which showed parallels with Alike’s account. All stories shared were deeply rooted in the struggle of reconciling the complexities of sexuality and gender against the rigid norms and morals of one’s community. The audience came to a consensus that the film told a poignant, powerful story centered on navigating one’s sexual identity around presupposed ideals and the systematic constructs that one strives to unlearn.
In the end, the film’s strongest element was its powerful depiction of transition and resilience. In one sequence, Alike was shown transforming on screen as she changed her clothes and readjusted her earrings on her way home in an effort to avoid tension with her parents. Meanwhile, viewers also follow Alike through her enjoyment and recitals of poetry. The film begins with the quote “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs,” similar to Alike’s feeling of non-belonging. At the end of the film, Alike recites: “And I am not running / I’m choosing / Running is not a choice from the breaking / Breaking is freeing / Broken is freedom / I am not broken / I’m free.” In these lines, Dee Rees captures the essence of queer resilience.