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Pariah’s Pariah: A Review, a Critique

*Spoiler Alert*

On Friday, Dee Rees’ much lauded independent film, Pariah will expand its release from four theaters to eleven, increasing the opportunity for many to view this incredibly important Focus Features release. Rees’ debut work has deservedly generated a deluge of critical praise, and should at the very least garner a few nominations come award season.

The coming of age story centers on Alike (pronounced uh-LEE-kay), played pitch perfectly by Adepero Oduye as a somewhat awkward 17-year-old high school student and aspiring poet. On the cusp of fully coming in to her sexuality, Alike dons herself in boy’s clothing at school and as she explores the gay nightlife New York City with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker). At home, however, Alike dresses in a more traditionally feminine costume to throw her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans) off of her increasingly difficult to mask scent. This, of course, is the core tension in the film, and the viewer’s stomach tightens as the stakes get increasingly higher. As this central narrative unfolds, Alike smartly navigates her way through personal discovery, experiencing first love and a gut-wrenchingly painful heartbreak, all the while preparing for that ever difficult task of leaving the (parents’) nest. 

I had the fortune of screening Pariah at Chicago’s Reeling Film Festival last fall, and it is excellent. The film is visually stunning and presents New York through an incredibly fresh and unique lens. Writer/director Rees has crafted a compellingly human cast of rich characters, including veteran comedian, Kim Wayans, whose convincing turn as Alike’s prudish and lonely mother is surprising to those familiar with her résumé. Wayans was absolutely impressive in her role, and has rightfully received buzz for her dramatic performance. Alas, Wayans’ character is the most glaring of the few troubling aspects of Rees’ otherwise awesome work.

At several moments in the film, I was reminded of Lee Daniel’s comparatively more problematic movie, Precious (2009), the filmic rendering of Sapphire’s novel Push (1996). My recalling Daniels’ work has nothing to do with limited knowledge of film or a (mainstream) reviewer’s rather lazy impulse to compare Pariah to the other, black film she was last required to see. Rather, the commonalities between the two films are few but significant, and include but go beyond the way that although the lens is softer, the milieu, the visual effect of Pariah reminds me of the scenes inside Precious’ apartment. And although both Precious and Alike are helped along the road of self-discovery through writing and poetry and the support of a (light-skinned) English teacher, that similarity is not the most glaring. In fact, Pariah has none of the issues around color Daniels’ work does. One might determine that my comparison is rooted in the fact that Wayans, just like Precious‘ Mo’Nique, was known as a comedic actor before being cast in a dramatic role as the mother of a black teenager. And that is at least in the same region as my issue. For as impressive as Pariah is, the tension that propels this narrative is the unfortunately familiar castigation of black motherhood.

My praises of Wayans’ portrayal notwithstanding, though the character she is charged to play is the seeming antithesis of Precious Jones’ mother, she of reeks of a similar kind of pathology. That is, Audrey is unliked, distant, and the enemy of her daughter. As the matriarch of her conservative family, Audrey has an investment in maintaining a traditional, respectable family image that both her daughter and her husband (through his implied extramarital affair) reject with their actions. The irony, of course, is that black mothers are generally vilified for their inability to assimilate into the common nuclear family structure through their out of wedlock children, unmarried status, multiple sexual partners (and hence baby-daddies), and poverty. Wayans’ Audrey shows that even attempting to emulate the nuclear family structure through consistent church attendance, commitment to traditional gender roles and heterosexual monogamy does not give one access to a kinder, gentler image that is now seemingly endemic to one Clair Huxtable. Instead, Audrey, like black mothers before her is cold, irrational, and incapable of unconditional love, a fact reiterated in a scene between Laura and her mother. Although Audrey’s struggle to maintain a grasp of her traditional family unit through these resistances might allow for the structure itself to be called into question,  the film expresses that the problem lies with Audrey and her selfish refusal to let her husband and daughter evolve (away from her).

Audrey is the personification of repellent. Nobody likes her. She has no work friends (she eats lunch alone while her coworkers talk about her within earshot), and her only social engagement is at church. Audrey’s isolation might generate sympathy from the audience, but her inability to control her Lutie Johnson-esque rage means that the anger continuously boils over, scalding her family. The audience’s spying of Audrey waiting for her allegedly adulterous husband, Arthur is the lone attempt to engender some form a sympathy for Audrey, but her other antics neutralize the scene, rendering it meaningless. Further, it’s Arthur’s adultery becomes the secret that binds him with Alike.

Both Arthur and Alike forge a bond by knowing and keeping each other’s secrets–from Audrey. Although this subplot sweetens an already loving relationship between father and daughter, the problem with this subplot is that it requires an understanding that the two have a common enemy, Audrey, and further ensconces her as such. So, as much as the audience thirsts for this black father-daughter link, that connection is predicated upon an implicit castigation of black motherhood. Which, as award history suggests, is probably part of the reason why Wayans is the cast member most likely to win an award. At least Mrs. Jones got to explain herself. Pariah leaves the impression that Audrey will soon lose her already tenuous grasp. And the audience is left with the impression that it should not care.

As much as I enjoyed Pariah and as much as it increased my fandom of Kim Wayans, I found her character disappointing. Pariah is an incredibly rich film that explodes caricatures of blackness and sexuality through its commitment to expressing the humanity underneath those identity markers. Unfortunately, as powerful as the storytelling is, it still rests upon and forwards an all too common image of black motherhood. So even as I applaud the film and strongly encourage everyone to go see Pariah, my ovation is tempered and slightly hesitant.