I am a little late in the game, but I will be doing a series of four articles on movies for black history month. The first one is one of my favorites, "Pariah".
It is a beautifully done Indie film, and in fact, debuted at the same Sundance Film Festival as "Precious" in 2011. Whereas "Precious" is loud and depends on the abuse of the black female body as a vehicle, "Pariah" is quiet, questioning, and real.
"Pariah" is an exploration of identity in several ways. Alike, who is a black lesbian, starts the movie by dressing and trying to play the part of a stud. She dresses in masculine clothing and goes to the club with her friend, Laura, to dance and flirt with women. When Alike goes home, she changes into pink feminine clothing, the identity her church involved mother, Audrey, wants her to have.
What makes this movie great is that there is an open conversation about black female sexuality and it is a comfortable conversation. There is homophobia, but it tends to come from the older generation of men and women who attend church. Women dance with each other, flirt with each other, sit on each other, kiss each other, talk about wanting to have sex with each other, and the judgment of the outside world stays outside.
The penultimate moment of the movie is when Alike meets Bina, who has the same interests as her. They sleep together and after, Bina tells her that it was a one night stand because she isn't "gay gay", another identity that this movie explores. What it means to sleep with women and have a sexual relationship with women, but ultimately want a romantic and intimate relationship with men.
Alike cries, but this is the moment that makes her grow and solidifies her as a person.
Later in the film, during the climax, her parents have an explosive fight and Alike intervenes, only for Audrey to shove her against a wall. Alike asserts that she is gay and that there is nothing wrong with her.
There are also several tropes that this movie subverts. Even though Alike's father, Arthur, is very much present in her life. He encourages her self-expression and protects her from men who get creepy on her. While he floats back and forth on his opinion of her sexuality, he chooses to be there for her in the end. He is still home for her.
There is also a stereotype that black folk are extremely homophobic and unaccepting, which is blatantly untrue. "Pariah" shows a community that mainstream media is not interested in because it isn't dramatic and it isn't hateful. It's complex, rich, and comes with its own set of rules.
This movie also subverts the trope of the "teacher savior", when a teacher (most of the time a white teacher), comes in and turns the students' grades around for the better. Alike's teacher reads her assignment and tells her that it was good, but that she was so much more capable. She didn't save her. She challenged her.
The saddest part of the movie is the very last time Alike speaks to her mom. Yes, there is a trope that black women are jealous and get loud and abusive when they learn of a potential affair.
In this case, Audrey's whole life revolves around her reputation and the church. Her instant reaction to both Arthur and Alike are to push them away. Which justifies her fight with them more so than undirected anger. The movie also gives Audrey a chance to explain herself when Alike speaks with her the last time.
Alike wants Audrey to accept her, and Audrey wants Alike to fit her vision. Both are quiet. Both are steadfast rocks. At this moment the viewer is allowed to hope that Audrey will change and accept Alike in the future. They have a mature, calm confrontation that is not given to black folk in mainstream media. And it is so refreshing.
"Pariah" explores black identity with care. There are no white folk in the film, and the frame keeps us within this community. We watch hearts breaks, issues arise and settle, and ultimately, Alike finds her own identity as a writer. "Pariah" is worth watching, if only for a taste of something that is never showcased.