At the club, the music thumps, go-go dancers twirl, shorties gyrate on the dance floor while studs play it cool, and adorably naive 17-year-old Alike takes in the scene with her jaw dropped in amazement. Meanwhile, her buddy Laura, in between macking the ladies and flexing her butch bravado, is trying to help Alike get her cherry popped. This is Alike’s first world. Her second world is calling on her cell to remind her of her curfew. On the bus ride home to Brooklyn, Alike sheds her baseball cap and polo shirt, puts her earrings back in, and tries to look like the feminine, obedient girl her conservative family expects.
With a spectacular sense of atmosphere and authenticity, Pariah takes us deep and strong into the world of an intelligent butch teenager trying to find her way into her own. Debut director Dee Rees leads a splendid cast and crafts a pitch-perfect portrait that stands unparalleled in American cinema.
Rees’s work unravels the intersections between the historical and the present, showcasing the persistence of slavery, violence, and oppression in the United States. After Pariah, Rees went on to direct Bessie, the Emmy Award-winning HBO biopic of blues singer Bessie Smith, and the 2017 Sundance Film Festival hit Mudbound, a drama about two families, one white and one black, living in post-World War II Mississippi. Rees recently received the Sundance Institute Vanguard Award, given to an emerging artist who embodies visionary storytelling and engages audiences in fresh and exciting ways. In her acceptance speech, Rees posited: “Our history is perpetually being rewritten as we live it. We won’t know what it is until we look back and chart our slow trajectory followed by the rhythmic unbroken line of now, now, now, now.” Rees is one of a growing cohort of directors (Janicza Bravo, Barry Jenkins, Kahlia Brown, Yoruba Richen, Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, etc.) working to shape the multifaceted black experience on screen.
“But Pariah is important, not simply as a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the mini-movement of young black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what ‘black film’ can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.”
—Nelson George, The New York Times, 2016
“I don’t know what Roger would have thought of Mudbound. But I do know that it supports his thesis that movies are machines that generate empathy. I believe that viewers of different races will find different entry points into the film, but everyone will come out at the end with their viewpoints challenged and perhaps enriched. Rees and company have crafted an unforgettable plea for empathy and justice. This is not an easy film, but it’s an essential one.”
—Odie Henderson, Rogerebert.com, 2016