Pariah was the debut film of Dee Rees, who has gone on to work mostly for Netflix with her next two films, Mudbound and The Last Thing He Wanted. Rees also did an episode of the Philip K. Dick anthology series Electric Dreams. I still haven’t seen Mudbound (although it’s been permanently in my queue since its release) but I did see the complete dumpster fire that was The Last Thing He Wanted. On the basis of Pariah, I think it’s safe to say Rees simply had the wrong sensibilities to adapt Joan Didion’s novel about the Iran-Contra affair.
Adepero Oduye plays Alike, who mainly goes by Lee, a Black teenage butch lesbian who is coming to terms with her sexuality. One of the extraordinary things about Oduye’s performance is that she was in her early 30s but is utterly believable as a 17-year-old, which completely uproots the general rule that older actors can’t playing convincing teenagers. Along with with friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who Lee’s parents don’t like because she is openly a lesbian, Lee hangs out in lesbian clubs behind her parents’ backs. Lee’s parents are homophobic to an extent, specifically her mother who is a Christian, but the film quite brilliantly has a sense of compassion for them even when they are at their worst. No doubt this is because Dee Rees has said the film is semi-autobiographical.
Her parents try to push Lee into conforming to their rigid gender norms: her mother is constantly buying her girly-girl clothes, and attempts to steer her away from Laura by trying to get her to become friends with Bina (Aasha Davis)—but that may not turn out the way her parents hope it does. It’s a remarkable little film about a world you haven’t seen on screen before, as this is only the second film directed by and about a Black lesbian to have any kind of theatrical release in the US, after The Watermelon Woman in the ’90s. Pariah has never even had a festival screening in the UK as far as I can tell, not even BFI’s LGBTQ+ festival Flare. That is a stunning oversight. So besides being available for digital purchase/rental, it’s the first release for the film in the UK.
There are obvious comparisons to Moonlight, but I will go out on a limb and say Pariah is the better film, even though at times you can tell it’s a short film expanded to a feature. The reason why it might succeed where some other expanded shorts don’t is that it doesn’t try to fill it out with too much excessive story and moves at a brisk 86 minutes. It’s also beautifully photographed by Bradford Young, who has gone on to shoot huge films like Arrival and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Even the fact that Lee is an aspiring poet, which what would normally be the kiss of death for most films, works in the context of the story Rees is telling.
Criterion sadly didn’t include the original short version of Pariah. I don’t know what the issue was—maybe somebody else owns the rights? However, you do get a newconversation between director Dee Rees and filmmaker and professor Michelle Parkerson, a reunion with Rees and the film’s cast over Zoom, a new making-of programme that includes interviews with the production crew, and a new interview with film scholar Kara Keeling, author of Queer Times, Black Futures. The booklet includes an essay with critic Cassie da Costa.