It’s difficult to talk about Pariah because it feels like so much is riding on its success. On the one hand, it’s a well-made small film about a young black Brooklyn lesbian’s coming-out starring a bunch of people you haven’t heard of who will hopefully have a lot more opportunities after this. On the other, it’s one of the few major-ish movies of any year with an all-black cast, and perhaps the only one this year not made by Tyler Perry. It’s one of the few serious films ever about black lesbians. (I’m sure there have been others, but for the life of me I can’t think of them.) It’s one of a not-huge number of serious films about black folks, period. So because we live in a world obsessed with generalizing, it feels like Pariah‘s success or failure isn’t just its own. It’s the success of movies about black people not made by Tyler Perry, or the success of movies about queer black people, or just the success of serious movies about black people that aren’t told through the lens of a sympathetic white protagonist.
My point is, I’m nervous here. Because I liked Pariah, but not as much as I feel like I should’ve to support all the stuff I just mentioned.
It’s not that it’s not good! It is very good! The story – of Alike, a young Brooklyn lesbian, trying to find love, figure out who she is, and navigate her conservative family – is engaging, if fairly predictable (probably moreso if you’re not me. In order for me to predict what’s going to happen in a story actual neon signs are usually required). The writing is solid, if occasionally clunky where writer-director Dee Rees tries to be a little too of-the-moment in her use of slang. All of the actors pull their weight; no one carries anyone else. I particularly loved Kim Wayans (sister of Marlon, Damon and Keenan Ivory! Who knew?!) and the unthinkably handsome Charles Parnell as Alike’s parents Audrey and Arthur, who are barely maintaining a deeply dysfunctional marriage. Arthur is authoritarian and uncommunicative, Audrey is repressed at a level typically only seen among New England WASPs, and they are only able to spend bare minutes in one another’s company before someone snaps. Yet we ache for Audrey, who clearly doesn’t have the first idea how to do anything other than suffer in silence or explode, choosing the former far more often than the latter. And although it’s tempting to vilify Arthur within the context of his marriage, his management of Alike outpaces Audrey’s to such an extent that he sometimes feels like the hero of the piece. (That said, let me be clear: despite doing a better job than Audrey, he still does a rotten job.) Parnell and Wayans juggle these complexities masterfully. Both deserve way more work than I suspect they will get, Hollywood being what it is. Adepero Oduye also does a nice job as Alike. People (where by “people” I mean “people including Meryl Streep”) are kinda creaming themselves over her, which I don’t get, but she’s reasonably skillful and handles the role gracefully. Thumbs up Oduye.
So what am I complaining about? Honestly, nothing specific. I just wanted Pariah to be better. I didn’t want it to be solid, well-made and interesting, I wanted it to be transcendent. I wanted it to knock me on my ass. I wanted it to redefine how I thought about queer indie cinema. And it didn’t. Are these unfair stakes? Absolutely. If this were any other queer indie film, my review would read, “Really good, really well-done, but it didn’t leave much with me. I am not particularly impacted, but that’s personal.” Something like that, something showing that the film just doesn’t speak to me that well. But when the stakes are this high … it should. It’s no coincidence that a lot of critics are comparing Pariah to Precious, 2009’s black indie offering that brought us killer performances by Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey but led certain critics (where by “critics” I mean “the New York Press‘s professional contrarian Armand White”) to call it “a sociological horror show” (which contention I do not dispute). Those are the films within the genre of “serious films about black people that don’t star Denzel Washington” that have made any sort of broad cultural mark. I’d like there to be more of those, which is why I wanted Pariah to excel where it simply succeeds.
But it’s good, and you should probably see it.