One of the biggest success stories of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival was writer-director Dee Rees' film Pariah, about 17-year-old black lesbian Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay, played by Adepero Oduye) and her struggles to forge an identity from the constricting butch/femme palette. Her best friend Laura (a scene-stealing Pernell Walker) has her back, but unintentionally complicates things; Alike's also caught between a dad who adores her and a mom whose own demons create a volatile household. It's a sharp, moving, visually gorgeous film, insightfully written and directed by Rees, who spoke with us about adapting Pariah from her same-titled 2007 short, issues affecting queer youth, the semi-autobiographical elements of the film, and Spike Lee's role in getting Pariah made.
Ernest Hardy: Pariah has my favorite movie line of the year: "You're a grown-ass woman, bruh."
Dee Rees: [Laughing] Is it the perversity of the bruh?
EH: It's how much is said in that single line. It captures all the tensions of Alike's world — the identity battles being waged; the gender issues in play; the parent/child war that's brewing.
DR: That line is Laura's challenge to Alike that she should start staking out her own identity, even as Laura is forcing an identity on Alike. That's the irony.
EH: That's a central point the film makes — that the pressures on young LGBT folks aren't just from homophobic parents or society. It's also from members of the community, who can be exacting in telling you how you should act and what it means to be gay.
DR: That's a big part of the film, because that was the thing I was most confused by when I was coming out, even though I came out when I was 27 years old and, you know, supposedly a grown-ass woman. I'm not saying everywhere, but in the [lesbian] clubs I'd go to there was this re-creation of hetero culture and it felt like, "What's the point?"
It was this very butch/femme dichotomy and I felt like I didn't fit in either one. I wasn't hard enough to be butch; I wasn't soft enough to be femme. With Pariah, I was trying to show that there is a spectrum of gender identity. Alike comes to realize that she doesn't have to be anything; she can just continue being herself.
EH: You've said that Pariah is semi-autobiographical . . .
DR: It's semi-autobiographical in that I came out when I was 27, not 17. Being from Nashville, one of the things I was amazed by in coming to New York was seeing these out teenage girls who not only knew at that young age [that they were lesbians], but weren't afraid to be that. In some ways, it's transposing my experience — if I'd come out when I was 17, what would that have been like?
I never experienced any physical violence coming out, and my circumstances were very different because I was living independently. The risks were less for me because I was self-sustaining. I wanted to tell the story of a teenager because the stakes are higher for her. She's dependent. She's not taking care of herself.
Also, Pariah is about how to be, versus coming out. Alike knows that she loves women; that's not the question. Her question is how to be. And that was my struggle — not that I love women, but how to be.
EH: Alike's parents, Arthur and Audrey, are re-conceptualized from the short, where it's the father whose response is violent. It didn't come across in your short that Alike was a daddy's girl, which is a major point of the feature.
DR: Yeah, when I first wrote the feature script, it was the dad who committed the violence. It was coming from a place of surprise, of him feeling betrayed that his best friend [his daughter] hadn't been honest with him. But as I workshopped it, it just didn't feel right. I realized that Arthur wouldn't be capable of this. I realized that it's Audrey who's not being listened to. It's Audrey who everybody's pushing away, so she's the one who's isolated. She's the one who's gonna be able to [commit an act of violence] and just lose herself.
EH: How did you find Adepero Oduye?
DR: She came to us when we were casting the short in 2006. She came in the first day of auditions at NYU, and had on her little brother's clothes. She just blew the audition away. And she wasn't a stereotype. She got it. It's like she walked off the page.
EH: A crucial segment in the film is when we see Laura and her all-girl crew hanging on the pier, trying to figure out what to do that night. Flash ahead a few hours and one of the girls is crashing on Laura's couch out of necessity. Without turning into a PSA, that moment serves as a reminder that homelessness is a serious issue for LGBT youth.
DR: I'm glad that came through. We didn't want it to be a PSA, but we wanted to address the issue. Sometimes gay is depicted in the media as fun and fabulous, like it's all good now. I wanted to show that it's not all good, and the girls are putting on this kind of faux fabulousness. The pier scene is supposed to be very Midsummer's Night Dream — as the night goes on, the gilt wears off, we see it's not as glamorous as it looks. They may not have a place to stay; they don't know where their next meal is coming from.
EH: Can you talk a bit about the role that Spike Lee played in getting Pariah made?
DR: I met Spike as a student at NYU. He teaches a master class there. Every week, I'd sign up for office hours and then find something to talk about. Mostly it was the script for Pariah, and he'd give advice on it. Then in 2008, my producer Nekisa Cooper asked him to formalize his role 'cause he was basically acting as a de facto mentor/advisor, and he did.
He would look at drafts of the budget, go through with a ruler and give advice on where to cut. He read the script and gave honest, objective feedback. One of my memories was coming back from the Sundance Lab all puffed up that I had the Sundance laurels on the script. He took a Sharpie to it and was like, nope, it's not there yet. It really humbled me, but he was great in that way. When we got to post-production, he would watch edits, he watched the rough cut, he watched the advance rough, and gave notes on the edit itself. I interned with him on Inside Man and then again on When the Levees Broke, and he had more black queer people on his sets than I've seen on any other set.
EH: When Focus picked up Pariah, it was reported that the deal included first-look rights at your next film.
DR: Yeah, part of it was a blind-script deal, where they basically pay me to write a script for them. I'm writing a thriller called Bolo. It's set in the South, so it's a harkening back to my roots. And I'm working with Viola Davis and HBO on a new TV series. I'm excited to continue creating characters that I fall in love with and stories that are meaningful.