I have a confession to make: before starting this column, I had only seen about 2 classic lesbian films. I know, I’m a bad queer. When I admitted this to my fellow GO coworkers, they were appalled. Two of them quickly listed off at least 10 films I needed to watch right away. I rapidly wrote down the titles (for research, obviously).
I want to take you all along with me in my quest to review all of the lesbian classics through my Millennial queer lens. Last time, I reviewed the ’90s feminist lesbian film, “Better Than Chocolate.”
This week, I’m diving in to watch the 2011 coming of age film “Pariah.”
While a lot of the other films I’ve reviewed for this column have been ~throwbacks~ to the ’80s and ’90s, “Pariah” is a modern classic lesbian film. One of the reasons that this film is so significant is that there are few films that focus on the narratives of Black LGBTQ lives the way “Pariah” does. Sure, there are QTPOC characters in a few of the other films I’ve reviewed, but they play supporting roles or side characters. Which is a whole other issue on its own.
When I started this project, I knew that I needed to watch “Pariah” because it’s one of the only films with Black lesbians as the leading characters. Yes, there’s “Set it Off” and “Stud Life” which came before “Pariah,” but this coming of age film focuses on teens and their coming out experiences in a beautiful and nuanced way. The cinematography and dramatic lighting add to the depth of the film and really make you feel what the characters are going through in the moment.
The first scene opens up on Alike (Adepero Oduye) sitting by herself in the Catnip Lounge while her friends laugh and cheer with the dancers on the stage. To see these teenagers in an adult lesbian club is something that could really only happen in NYC. Living in Brooklyn, the main characters and best friends Laura (Pernell Walker) and Alike have access to growing up faster than most teens do.
Just because they can find LGBTQ spaces doesn’t necessarily mean they’re accepted. What we come to learn about Alike (also referred to as Lee throughout the film) is that she is navigating two completely different worlds — neither of which she feels accepted in. At home and with her family, she’s expected to be a girly girl and to be interested in attending prom like her sister is. When her strict parents become suspicious of her masculine presenting best friend and her after curfew hours — they force femininity on her even more so. But Alike doesn’t feel soft enough to be femme.
And while it might be assumed that she would immediately feel at home in the lesbian friend group with Laura, Alike feels like an outsider there too. She’s not hard enough to be butch, and she’s left feeling isolated from both worlds where she craves to be accepted.
Alike physically changes herself before coming home from the club. Lee slowly strips away her A.G. (aggressive) persona to put on diamond earrings and a tight shirt that says “Angel” before she goes home. You can feel her discomfort. Her struggle to figure out who she is — when she’s told to be two different people — is something so many queer women can relate to. While Lee never questions her desire for women, she’s stuck feeling like a pariah.
Oduye’s performance of Alike is stunning; she creates a sincerity of the teenage experience that is so specific to a Black lesbian girl, yet relatable to everyone. The feelings of coming-of-age films are that of confusion, angst, heartbreak, desire to fit in, and navigation of self — lived experiences most of us go through.
While the representation of queerness and Blackness is at the forefront of the film — writer and director Dee Rees also gives an important representation of a femme woman making the first move, the Black punk scene, classism within friendships, familial relationships, and the essence of queer community. “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,” Rees told Indie Wire before the release of the film.
Laura shows a hard exterior in the beginning of the film, yet as we get to know her as the lesbian mama of the group of friends. Laura regularly lets her homeless friends (presumably because they got kicked out of their homes for being gay) crash on her couch, provides a space for community to gather and gives coming-out advice to Lee. The complicated relationship Laura has with her mother is a brief but integral storyline in the film. She shows up at her parents’ apartment in one scene to tell her mom that she got her G.E.D. and her mom can hardly look her in the eyes, let alone congratulate her.
It’s heartbreaking to see the ways in which both Laura and Alike crave for their mothers’ love and acceptance while still being unabashed about their queerness. In the pivotal scene where Lee comes out to her parents mid-fight — the viewer feels her finally expressing her true self. And yet her mother’s reaction is to call her a “nasty ass dyke” and hit her. Alike stands tall and responds, “It’s not a phase, there’s nothing wrong with me.” I had tears in my eyes watching this, knowing that so many LGBTQ people have had similar experiences of feeling tossed aside by their parents at the expense of living their authentic lives.
The navigation of mother-daughter relationships in this film really resonated with me. I struggled with coming out to my own mother and she took years to accept my sexuality. So watching both of these young girls work so hard to feel deserving of their mothers’ love was heartbreaking and definitely brought on the waterworks for me. I know what it feels like to want to be loved by someone who feels they can’t accept a core part of who you are.
Alike falls in love with her friend Bina (Aasha Davis) — which surprises her as her friendship was Bina was forced upon her by her mother. While most of the queer characters in the film are decisive about their sexual identity, Bina is a little different. She makes the first move on Lee and yet, after they spend the night with each other, Bina tells Lee that she’s “not gay, gay like that.” She explains that what happened was just “playing around” to her and asks Lee not to tell anyone about what happened.
Lee was crushed. She had longed for an emotionally deep relationship with another woman and finally felt she found that with Bina. And yet, Bina turned her down because she wasn’t ready to speak whatever her truth is about her sexuality.
The changes that Alike goes through ultimately lead her to follow her dreams as a writer and a poet. The moments of rejection from her mother and Bina push her to apply to a writing program and start her college experience early. The woman you see at the end of the film has all of the lessons she’s learned from navigating friendships, coming out, her first love, the pressures to be someone she’s not — and she takes every single one of these experiences to take ownership over her future. Alike is empowered, and yet, tears roll down her cheeks as she boards the bus to leave for school. She carries with her the weight of everything her younger self has gone through. And as you watch this last scene, Alike’s voice reads her most recent poem: