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Real Talk: 'Pariah' Changes the Game for Black Films

Filmgoers get excited over the opening of "Pariah."
I’m one of the many who complain about the narrow scope of films by and about Black people, so I’m excited to see what “Pariah” (in theaters starting today) has to offer. The much-buzzed-about film — it’s been spoken of as a long-shot Oscar contender — received stellar reviews at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and is also nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. Black female director Dee Rees (far left in the above photo) also won Breakthrough Director at the 21st Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards.

“Pariah” tells the story of Alike (played by actress Adepero Oduye, above right), a 17-year-old Brooklynite searching for a girlfriend and coming to terms with her sexuality, according to Focus Features. Alike’s development becomes a topic of discussion among her family, but Alike is determined to express her identity — whenever she figures out what that is.

“Other films have depicted this particular Black alternative life (as did a couple of memorable characters in HBO’s masterly series ‘The Wire’),” wrote filmmaker Nelson George in “New Directors Flesh Out Black America, All of It,” for the New York Times. “But no film made by a Black lesbian about being a Black lesbian has ever received the kind of attention showered on Ms. Rees’s film.”

Added George, “’Pariah’ is important, not simply as a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the mini-movement of young Black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what ‘Black film’ can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.”

As inspiration for “Pariah,” Rees, who came out in her 20s, pulled from the “out” teenagers she saw in New York, “something I’d never seen in Nashville, Tennessee. I barely saw out adults.” She also channeled her personal experiences.

“[‘Pariah’] was just my own coming-out experience sort of transposed onto a 17-year-old,” Rees told Movie Line. “I chose to make Alike 17 because it’s such a higher-stakes age; figuring stuff out that young, it’s going to be higher because you’re still dependent on your parents and so much is still uncertain about you. You don’t know what you’re going to be.”

About Pariah’s reception thus far, Rees couldn’t be happier. “This [press] tour has been this amazing wash of affirmation and love. It makes me feel good about audiences….  They’re smart and progressive and open. They’re willing to see stories beyond themselves, images that don’t exactly look like them. It restored my faith in cinemagoers. They are hungering for good stories and are willing to step outside their experience to get them.”

Kim Wayans, who plays Alike’s religious mother, struggling with her daughter’s sexuality as a lesbian, hopes audiences take away the message of tolerance.

“We just need to love and accept people as they are and not try to impose our value system on them,” Wayans told Essence.com. “I just hope a movie like this can hold up a mirror to people who might be experiencing something like this and might be having a difficult time embracing their sexuality.”

Will you head to the theater to see “Pariah”?

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk