*Once you see the Focus Features film “Pariah,” it will haunt you long after the credits roll.
The film, opening today, 12-28-11, is breathtaking, riveting, and thought-provoking—a tour de force achievement for first time director Dee Rees, who has written a semi-autobiographical tale about a young teen named Alike who is quietly but firmly coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian.
“I started writing Pariah in the summer of 2005 during my coming out process,” recalls Rees, who revealed her identity as a lesbian at the age of 27. At the time, Rees was enrolled in New York University’s Graduate Film Program and was interning on Spike Lee’s “Inside Man.” Her lunch breaks were spent scribbling ideas for the movie in longhand in notebooks. Rees originally shot it as a short—but it proved to be a long and arduous road to getting the movie to the big screen.
“Finding the money to make the film was the hardest part. It was a roller coaster,” Rees recalls, who added it took nearly six years to get the film to the screen. “My producer Nekisa Cooper helped get money for the film.” The two even sold a brownstone they owned in Brooklyn to come up with financing. “Nekisa shook every financing tree she could think of,” said Rees.
Cooper recalls it was a grueling pressure to get funding to finish the film. “Going into shooting, we still weren’t fully financed and the financing didn’t fall into place until 30 minutes before the shoot wrapped,” recalls Cooper. “It was literally a weekly, and sometimes daily, cash flow exercise.”
Rees added, “We knew that if we could get the movie to the screen, people could relate to the characters because I knew the film was a universal story.”
Rees and Cooper developed the film through the Sundance Institute and were able to attach Spike Lee as executive director to the project. Lee was also able to give invaluable feedback on the “Pariah” script over the years.
Asked about why she chose to name the film “Pariah,” Rees reflected:
“It means someone who doesn’t have a place. The character Alike felt she didn’t fit in either the gay or the straight world. Each of the main characters is a “pariah.” They all have their fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses and isolations. One thing I definitely worked on in the writing was showing the characters’ struggles to connect, and their worlds away from their families—where there are attitudes and expectations that they might not how to handle.”
Rees said that the conflicts of her character echo the ones she experienced in real life.
“When I came out, my parents weren’t very accepting,” she said. “At first, my mom said, ‘Oh, you’re in film school, this artsy thing, whatever, it’s a phase.’ When they realized I was serious and that it wasn’t a phase, both my parents came in and staged an intervention. For a few months, they sent emails and cards and letters and Bible verses to make me think and change. It got to the point where I told them ‘Don’t communicate with me if that’s what it’s going to be about, because my sexuality is not an option and it’s not a choice.’ We eventually started talking again, and things are better.”
Pausing, she added, “I would hope this film gets to reach families, especially people who have broken relationships to come together and accept one another.”
Adepero Oduye, who plays Alike (pronounced al-lee-kay), portrays the 17-year-old African-American woman who lives with her parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn and struggles with how to reveal to them about her newfound sexuality. Oduye had earlier starred in Rees’ short film and revealed that she and Rees had numerous conversations about the role.
“I asked her many questions. We also did research. Pernell Walker and I, who plays my friend in the movie, Laura, went to a black and Latino lesbian party at a club where everyone was either dressed butch or femme. We were in-character, and Dee and producer Nekisa Cooper were watching us from the sidelines. I felt exactly like Alike; unsure of how to be, how to act. People there didn’t know how to perceive me, either; at the club, you were either butch or femme, and I fell in the middle. People were keeping it moving, pretty much overlooking me. It was an eye opening experience.”
Alike struggles to confide in her family about her new found sexuality, especially to her mother, Audrey (superbly portrayed by Kim Wayans). Audrey suspects her daughter is a lesbian, but is unable to accept the truth. It escalates into a mother-daughter conflict that culminates in some of the most arresting scenes in the movie.
And Oduye is gaining recognition for her riveting portrayal.
“Actress Kimberly Elise shouted me out on Twitter,” Oduye said, awed by the attention. “I just said, ‘Really?’” But maybe she shouldn’t be surprised because her performance in the film was also recently nominated for a Spirit Award. Reflecting on the critical acclaim the movie is receiving, Oduye responded, “It’s really been surreal. It’s all pretty new. I really haven’t had time to process it. As an actress, you think, ‘One day, maybe it might be me.’
Rees said that she knew she had found Audrey when she auditioned actress Kim Wayans.
“We had auditioned a lot of Audreys before we picked Kim,” Rees recalls. “She came the first day of auditions and she literally blew me away.”
“My manager sent me the script,” recalls Wayans, who up until auditioning for “Pariah” is still most recognized for her comedic talents from the “In Living Color” comedy series—and turns in an incredible job in her first dramatic role. “My manager was a friend of the casting director. The script was beautifully written story and it just touched my heart,” recalls Wayans.
About her character Audrey, who plays Alike’s mother, Wayans states:
“Audrey is a very controlling figure. She’s a very domineering person and she wants to control her daughter. She’s a desperate mother trying to save her child. And at the same time, there is tension and unresolved conflicts in Audrey’s marriage, so she is also a sad and lonely woman.”
And Wayans understands the struggles faced by many in the gay community and is saddened and disturbed by the reports of gay teen suicides.
“I had a close friend who was murdered for being gay,” she revealed. “He was beaten to death. I hope we can bring a spotlight and dialogue on situations such as this and I hope the audience takes away after seeing this movie that we should accept and love each other–and that we shouldn’t judge other people.”
As for director Rees, Wayans reflected: “Dee is awesome. She is so specific about what she wants. The set was a very peaceful and creative. It was very light and loving and everyone was happy to be there.Dee’s very quiet in the way she works.”
Wayans added that playing opposite Oduye was a joy.
“She’s a beautiful spirit—a wonderful, talented actress and she’s a beautiful person, inside and out.”
This is definitely a film worth seeing. Watch for other star turns in the movie portrayed by Alike’s father, the conflicted Arthur (Charles Parnell) and Alike’s “friend,” the mecurical Bina, (Aasha Davis, in a role that will completely surprise you).
“Pariah,” opening today, Wednesday, 12-28-11, stars Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, and Kim Wayans.
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