Interview: ‘Pariah’ Director Dee Rees

by Jenni Miller

Pariah is the coming-of-age and coming-out story of seventeen-year-old Alike, played by Adepero Oduye, a former pred-med student turned actress. Alike is caught between worlds; she lives in a nice brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where her parents are in deep denial about their daughter’s lesbian identity. Mom Audrey (Kim Wayans) wants her to dress more like a nice girl who goes to church on Sunday, while her dad Arthur (Charles Parnell) is a cop who knows deep down his daughter is gay but doesn’t want to admit it. Her little sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) knows what’s up and is both a source of solace and of rivalry.

Away from family, Alike explores her identity with her best friend Laura, a butch girl who takes her to clubs and tries to help her dress up and meet girls. When Audrey forces Alike to hang out with her church friend’s daughter Bina (Aasha Davis), a bond forms that Audrey never could have guessed–and would definitely not have sanctioned. Bina’s on the other end of the spectrum, a femme bisexual who probably wouldn’t identify as such but whose interest is piqued by Alike’s beautiful poetry and tender heart.

When things come to a head at home, Alike has to decide where she wants to fit in, if anywhere at all. Does she stay, does she run, or does she make her own choice?

I met up with writer/director Dee Rees in New York City the morning after she won the Breakthrough Director prize at the Gotham Awards. Pariah also won the Cinematography Award at Sundance, and Rees was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize; meanwhile, newcomer Oduye was recently nominated for the Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Focus Features has optioned a new film from Rees called “Bolo,” and she’s also hard at work on an HBO series with Viola Davis. In the meantime, seek out Pariah. It opens in select cities on December 28.

I know this is a story you’ve told a million times, but could you describe the process of writing a script, going to Sundance, editing it into a short, and then presenting the final version?

It’s been six years, from 2005 when I first wrote it to 2011 when it premiered at Sundance, and so for me, it always started as this feature piece. It was a feature film, and it’s about identity and I was going through my own coming-out process at the time, and a large part of my struggle was not being sure about how to be in the world. I knew that I loved women; that was quick. It was like, okay, got it, check, I understand that. But the bigger part was how to be and not feeling like I necessarily fit in some queer world. I felt in some ways there’s this kind of binary expression of gender identity, and I was somewhere in between. And so that’s Alike’s struggle in this film. She’s somewhere in between. Her best friend is pushing her to be one thing, and her mother’s pushing her to be another, and she’s neither of those things.

And in terms of making the film, I think the short was harder. We shot the short in 2006, and Adepero, who plays Alike, and Pernell, who plays Laura, came in, and they were perfect. We believe them as friends, we believe that they had the characters, and so I think they’ve been really amazing in staying with us all this time ’cause the short made its way onto the festival circuit [and] more things started happening. We got to workshop it at Sundance Labs, but I think it just helped everybody grow as artists, and we stayed in it. We shot the feature in ’09, and we really took 2010, took our time and let the edit be what it needed to be, and stayed objective and didn’t rush it.

That first scene is amazing. You have Khia playing, you’ve got the girl on the stripper pole in the club, and Alike is very uncomfortable. Is that from your own experience?

It was. My first time in a lesbian club, I was kind of like a deer in headlights. It was interesting to be in this world that felt very binary; there were people who clearly identified as more stud or AG [aggressive], and then people identified as more femme, and I’m there in a turtleneck and jeans, so I’m, like, neither. [laughs] Also, I was surprised by some of the misogyny, I guess, that’s being recreated in this environment. I was like, wait, this is a lesbian club? Why are we bringing this part over? So I was just kind of not sure how to take it all in, so I was both attracted, I was on my heels… It was like a mix of feelings. That first scene is inspired by that. I think that Khia song actually came on, and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to hell. Right now. Immediately.” So it was like a mix of that, and I wanted to show Alike as a seventeen-year-old being thrust into this world and not sure how to deal with it. I was 27, she’s 17, so it’s even more like, wait, what now?

It’s also a very specific space that a lot of people aren’t familiar with, which I found fascinating, I guess maybe voyeuristically. I was just really interested. You mentioned AG, which I guess is aggressive gangster? And I was wondering if you could talk more about that, because it’s kind of a specific part of the butch/femme binary.

People identify in different ways, and so for, Laura, Laura’s more of a stud. She’s more AG, and Alike, you know, up to this point has kind of been playing the part because Laura’s kind of telling her, oh, this is how you have to be. I just wanted to show that, as Alike comes into herself and realizes there’s different ways to be, and she meets Bina, who’s totally different, she realizes that she doesn’t have to put on costumes for her mother or her best friend. It’s just important to show there’s a range of gender expression and gender identity.

In this world, I really wanted to make it specific and make it — push people in and not explain, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be a trip to the zoo, so it’s not supposed to be this kind of outsider, like, “Let’s look at the black lesbians, see how they interact!” I wanted to give the audience credit and let people be smart, and by developing the characters and letting them know who these people are … they would have a sense of the characters as people and not just kind of like this third party, so I’m glad you felt that and got that. It’s a world they haven’t been, but I’m not objectifying them.

I thought Laura was such a compassionate character. I really liked her. She loves her friend, maybe a little bit romantically…

She totally has a crush [on Alike].

Is Laura based on anyone?

No, no. I just wanted to show this sexy butch woman who’s nuanced. We first meet her, we think, oh, she has on this shield, she’s this hard person, but as we come to know her, we know that she’s very vulnerable. She’s coming from a place of wanting to be loved and included. So she totally does have a crush on Alike — Alike’s oblivious to it. I wanted to show that basically, Laura feels like she’s being left behind in a way, and so part of her pain is not just that Alike’s making new friends but she’s realizing, okay, next year Alike’s going to be gone. It’s going to be me, and it’s going to be the same old, same old. And so Laura realizes that she has to reach further for herself, irrespective of what Alike’s doing and irrespective of what her mother thinks, she realizes that she has to do something for herself. Like in the pier scene where it goes from glam to gloom, we kind of see that. There’s this kind of faux fabulousness, and everybody’s so happy, but the reality of it sinks in when people don’t have places to go home. Laura realizes, okay, this is going to be it forever unless I do something.

As someone who follows the film world and went to Sundance and so on, everyone likes to label things there. They like to be reductive and say, this person’s the It Girl, and so on. There was a little bit of that at Sundance this year with your movie. Could you speak to that at all?

We just tried to stay clear of all that. There’s all kind of speculation both ways. People said that we would never make the feature, and we made the feature. People said we’d never get into Sundance, and we got into Sundance. People said it would never sell at Sundance, and we sold. So all along, there’s been this speculation on both sides of the table. Basically, that’s the stuff you can’t control. All we can control is what’s on screen. So for me, I just try to stay focused on the fact that, you know what, we said what we wanted to say. We all put forth our best and did our best onscreen, and everything after that is subjective. It’s art, so people are going to like it. Some people are not going to like it. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. For me, I just try to not engage in that. I don’t read the press because nothing really good can come from it… Nothing good can come from it, and you have to have some kind of sense of self-evaluation and just know, okay, for the next film, you just want to keep doing better and better. So for us, we didn’t get caught up in it. It was very good it sold because that means it’s going to be seen, but beyond that, I try not to mind other people’s editorials or speculation.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is people were like, oh, you have a story about a girl in New York and she’s black and it’s at Sundance, and “Precious.” That’s f*cking ridiculous, if you pardon my French.

Yeah, totally. It’s a totally different story. I think people sometimes are coming from a place of — I think people meant it as complimentary, but for us, we wanted to show a totally different world, and within that world, totally different groups of people who responded differently. We didn’t have any concerns about how it would be received, and I think that audiences are smart, and we give them credit to just come see the film and we trusted that they’ll get it.

There’s so much more. There’s class. There are very subtle things about identity, about everyone hiding something or feeling like —

Everybody feels like a pariah, yeah. There’s classicism, [and] within the queer community there’s gender spectrum identity issues, so it’s layered up with a lot of things. For Alike, and for her mother, there’s this kind of spirituality where her mother uses it as a weapon but Alike gives it back to her as an affirmation. There are a lot of things going on. I think it’s much deeper than that. That’s one of the things I wanted to show with having Laura and Alike be different people; they’re both lesbians but they both identify differently, and they both have different experiences, so it’s not this model presentation of black femininity. They listen to different music; they wear different clothes; they speak differently. The fast girls don’t talk like Bina; Alike doesn’t talk like Laura. They each have their own kind of space, and so I think that’s part of the thing that will help to show people that this is different.

How did Kim Wayans get involved?

We had seen, actually, a lot of Audreys, and nobody was really hitting it… Actually, Audrey and Arthur, the two parents [were the hardest to cast] because we kept getting people who’d give us kind of the stereotypical take on it. We kept getting the whole angry black mama thing. I was like, no, no no! That’s not Audrey. And so Kim was the first person who got that Audrey is just a lonely woman. She just wants to connect. She just wants to go out. If Arthur had made love to her in the first ten minutes of the film, roll credits. None of this would have happened. But she’s this woman who’s basically socially awkward at work, doesn’t really have any friends, and she feels like she’s played by all the rules but nothing’s turned out, and so when we meet her in the story, she just wants to — I don’t know, I think she just wants things to be, in her mind, as they should be. She wants her husband to be at home… She wants to go to church as a group and everybody’s in these picture-perfect outfits and she’s realizing that this Betty Crocker kind of existence she’s imagined is not happening…

We’d seen a bunch of Audrey’s and Kim came in and blew it away. So she was the first woman who really got the role. She had it since she walked in…. She was the hardest character, also, to write for that reason. It was really hard to allow all the characters to be flawed and virtuous, so it was really important that Audrey not be one-sided.

Has this been a sort of catharsis or closure? Do you feel less like Alike, like a pariah?

Yeah, when I came out… Pariah was the shield I came out behind. Because I was out to my parents, to my friends, but I don’t think my parents were out to their extended circles, so this kind of forced the issue because [their friends] would hear about it and [my parents] would have to explain that their daughter’s a lesbian, so I think in a way it kind of accelerated their acceptance… It’s been a shield for me, and hopefully it will be a shield or an umbrella for somebody else to come out under and just give them some point of reference to let them know they’re not alone.

For more on Pariah, check out the official Facebook page for the movie and follow Focus Features on Twitter.

All photos courtesy of Focus Features.

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