Director Dee Rees and actress Adepero Oduye were fresh off an early awards season win when The Playlist caught up with them in New York. Their film "Pariah" nabbed Rees the prize for breakthrough director at the Gotham Awards the night before. It's not the first triumph for the assured feature debut, which was lauded with the Cinematography Award at Sundance in January, and probably not the last, though Rees is zen about the process, saying "Our statement's on the screen. Awards won't make it better, and a lack of awards won't make it worse."
Pariah is the story of Alike (Oduye), a black lesbian teenager living in Fort Greene and navigating between the aggressive gay nightclub scene preferred by her butch best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) and a closeted life at home, where her tightly wound mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) tries to dress her in pink cardigans and quizzes her about who she's taking to the school dance. When her mom forces her to spend time with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a friend from church, Alike discovers an unexpected romantic possibility that leads her down a road of connection and heartbreak, finally coming to terms with her own identity. Portrayed with great warmth and vulnerability by Oduye, Alike's coming of age is funny, painful and achingly genuine.
"Pariah" most obviously refers to Alike's relationship with her parents, particularly her mother, but the first time the title card comes up, it's by Alike sitting against the wall at the lesbian club by herself.
Dee Rees: The title is meant to show that Alike doesn't fit into either world. In the queer world she feels like she's not hard enough, not soft enough, and she doesn't fit into the straight world. The Audre Lorde quote that opens the film, "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs," for me meant that she has no place. We come to learn that all the characters in some way feel like pariahs, like they aren't being accepted in the way they want to be.
While this is a story about Alike looking for her place in the world, she's remarkably sure of herself in many ways. How do you go about portraying a sense of self that's rare in someone that age?
Adepero Oduye: Alike is sure about what she likes – her musical taste, her love of writing – and she's sure at the point you see in the film that this box, this box and that box, they're not her. She's sure she wants to figure out who she is. With different people, it happens at different points in their lives, and for Alike it's 17. She's been playing the roles that people have put upon her for so long, it's getting exhausting, and she has to break out of that.
DR: I see Alike's journey as more coming into than coming out. She knows that she loves women and that's not the question. The question's how to be. She's being told by her best friend that she should be one way, and on the opposite end, her mother's telling her that she should be a different way. It's not your typical coming out story, in that she knows she's gay – that's easy. The hard part is how to be yourself.
One of the film's signature images is Alike changing clothes as she goes to and from home and school and out to the club. Was that drawn from personal experience at all?
DR: It wasn’t my personal experience, but I wanted to show that the irony in that transformation is that she's neither of these things. She's not the stud Laura wants her to be. Neither is she this princess that her mother wants her to be. It was about showing this character as a chameleon, moving between worlds, about the life she's trying to maintain.
"Pariah"'s been compared to early Spike Lee and to titles like "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," but though the location is unmistakable, it doesn't seem to be as specifically grounded in Brooklyn as those films. Would you agree? How did place inform the film?
DR: I wanted to show that Alike's family is middle-class, Laura's is working class, to show a cross-section of New York. How Alike's able to find her way is something that could have only happened in New York. In other cities, there are less interstitial spaces where you're allowed to be yourself. New York offers people the anonymity to be themselves without judgment. I do feel that this is uniquely a Brooklyn story in that Alike's able to find this environment with Laura, even though it's not the right place. She's able to go to the club, to change on the bus, to have these moments in between where she vacillates between identities.
I'd imagine access to a place like the club in which the film opens would be pretty unusual for teenagers in most of the rest of the country.
DR: Yeah, when I first came to New York I was surprised by all these out teenagers who were openly on the street being who they were. That intrigued me because I was 27 and still struggling with being myself. We'd go to these clubs and it'd be a younger crowd. That first scene is inspired by personal experience, when I first went to a lesbian club and was like "Oh my god!" That song [Khia's " My Neck, My Back (Lick It)"] was playing, there were dancers, and I was like, "I'm going to hell." I wanted to show Alike in this environment where she's being told she should be comfortable, but she's not.
How do you see class working in this story? It seems an important angle, especially when it comes to Alike's mom, her self-image and her aspirations.
DR: There is classism going on. Part of Audrey's objection to Laura is not just because Laura's openly gay but because she thinks Laura is not of the caliber of people her daughter should be hanging out with. She redirects her to Bina, like, "Here's our kind of people." I don't think Alike sees class – this is just her best friend. But these women, although they're both lesbians, have different experiences and different family environments. This isn't a monolithic presentation of a community – these women can be in different places on the gender spectrum and in different places in terms of their experience.
The relationship between Alike and Laura is in some ways the central one in the film, and reflects the way that for teenage girls, friendship can be more emotionally complicated than any romantic entanglement.
DR: With friendship, it's hard sometimes – you don't outgrow your friends, but you do question how people are friends to you in different ways, and how it's okay to cultivate other relationships outside of that. And that's what happens when Alike meets Bina – Alike's first branching out, when Laura was maybe her only friend. As she starts building these other relationships, it creates a strain. Laura feels like she's being left behind. And Alike's going to be going off to college soon, and Laura come to realize she has to reach for herself, or she's going to be doing the same old same old while Alike's going to be moving on. Friends are complicated – they love you, but they may not always give you the best advice.
How much collaboration was there in shaping Alike's character? Adepero, I know you also played her in the 2007 short film that was the basis for this feature.
AO: When I first got the script for the audition, I immediately related to the sense of not feeling free, of being held back. That's where I started from. After I got the role, me and Dee talked a lot, and she said, you can ask any questions you want, anything at all. She recommended things for me to read, and I'd go read them. For me it was very collaborative, in that all the specifics were helped along by my conversations with Dee and the homework assignments that she gave us.
What were those homework assignments like?
AO: Me and Pernell Walker had to go to a black and Latina lesbian party in character. We went their together – Dee and Nekisa [Cooper, the producer] were there watching, but not interacting with us at all. That was the experience that thrust me specifically into Alike's world and dilemma, because she clearly does not fit into either of the boxes – she's not butch, she's not femme. She's trying really hard but sucking bad at it, and at the time I felt completely like I was on the outside looking in. I didn't belong, I felt invisible – it was so awkward. I remember going home that night and writing about that experience because it was like… whoa.
DR: And Pernell got phone numbers. (laughs)
AO: (laughs) She was dancing with girls and I was just, hah, the chopped meat on the side. But when you feel invisible, it's also kind of nice, because you're just observing. And a character like Alike, she's always observing, watching the scene, trying to figure out what's happening, and I relate to that, seeing where it's safe to tread. Then we'd go into a straight environment in character – Dave & Buster's in Times Square – and that was very interesting, getting covert looks. Dee was awesome in creating not just straight-up rehearsals but things that are really specific about the relationships and the world the characters live in.
So how did you go about recreating a teenage mindset? So much of this central performance hinges on moments of the character being so vulnerable and transparent when she's sure she's anything but.
AO: It's such a teenage thing to do! You think you're doing such a great job, but your mother knows, the adults around you know when something is wrong. You're like "Nothing's wrong!" But clearly there's something up. Just being in that space of trying to figure out who you are, that's very vulnerable – instead of just following what you normally do, you're making a step towards figuring it out. That can be uncomfortable and awkward, because you have to be open.
"Pariah" goes on release from tomorrow, Wednesday December 28th.