THE SCREEN­ING OF ‘PARIAH’

An in­ti­mate glimpse into Alike’s dy­namic world

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Jude Khash­man

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.

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 fem­i­nin- ity 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.

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’es­t­lavérité!” (“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.

[An] or­ga­nizer con­fessed that they had watched it over twenty times al­ready, demon­strat­ing the film’s pro­found res­o­nance with au­di­ences.

The depth of the colours evoked a visual metaphor for Alike’s rich and com­plex growth.

Jenna Yanke | Il­lus­tra­tor

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