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Interview with Dee Rees, Director of Pariah

One of the biggest success stories of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival was writer-director Dee Rees’s film Pariah, about seventeen-year-old black lesbian Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay, played by Ade-pero Oduye) and her struggles to forge an identity from the constricting butch/femme palate. 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 ele-ments of the film, and Spike Lee’s role in getting Pariah made.

Pariah has my favorite movie line of the year: “You’re a grown ass woman, bruh.”

[Laughing] Is it the perversity of the bruh?

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.

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.

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.

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 say-ing everywhere, but in the [lesbian] clubs I’d go to there was this recreation 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.

You’ve said that Pariah is semi-autobiographical…

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 expe-rience—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.

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.

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 work-shopped 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.

How did you find Adepero Oduye?

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.

A crucial segment in the film is when we see Laura and her all-girl crew hanging on the pier, try-ing 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.

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