After garnering much buzz at Sundance this year, the independent feature Pariah was picked up by Focus Features and hit theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco yesterday. The coming-of-age film follows Alike (pronounced “ah-lee-kay”), a 17-year-old African American lesbian from Brooklyn, N.Y., as she learns to embrace her identity. GLAAD asked director Dee Rees (pictured right) some questions about the film and her own journey as an out African American lesbian.
What was the inspiration behind Pariah? And what parts of Alike’s story do you identify with?
Pariah is semi-autobiographical. I went through some similar experiences. Like Alike, when I came out, I had a struggle with my parents accepting who I was, and I also had the internal struggle of realizing that my spirituality and my sexuality were not mutually exclusive. That’s what Alike comes to realize on top of her journey - discovering that even within the gay world she doesn’t have to check a box, she doesn’t have to be hard, she doesn’t have to be soft, she can just be herself. Those are things I dealt with in my own coming out experience, and I placed them on to this 17-year-old character. I have also been heavily influenced by work from authors like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker.
Why is it important to tell our stories on-screen?
Growing up, I rarely saw my image reflected on screen. The Color Purple and Women of Brewster Place are the few films I was allowed to watch when I was younger that touched on sexuality. I made Pariah to portray images on screen that we hadn’t seen before, and to bring to light the experiences of gay youth of color because those stories hadn't been fully told. The film experience is powerful because by taking you into the world of Pariah for ninety minutes, I can prove to you that we all are more alike than different. We all have dealt with the coming of age process and figuring out how to be ourselves.
The film tackles gender, sexuality, religion, and class. Why was that important?
Life and relationships are layered and nuanced for everyone – regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion or class. No one is a supporting character in their own life, so it was important to infuse the nuance and layers of gender, sexuality, religion and class into this story because that makes it a truly authentic depiction of these characters' lives and shatters stereotypes.
The cast, everyone from Kim Wayans to newcomer Adepero Oduye, completely nailed their roles. What was the casting process and rehearsals like?
Adepero (who plays Alike) is amazing. She actually came to us on the first day of auditions, when we were doing the short version of the film in 2006, and she just had this innate understanding of Alike’s outsider-ness. It was important for me to have an actress who could relate to what it feels like to be on the outside and to feel like you don’t quite fit in. Adepero just captured that perfectly. She came out dressed in her little brother’s clothes, and she was in the zone. She was so focused and not at all self-conscious. She totally immersed herself in it. I believed every second of it, when she was in front of me. She had that expressiveness and that ability to capture Alike’s hesitancy and her introversion, so she was perfect.
And Pernell Walker (who plays Laura) also came in on the short film. It wasn’t just important that the actresses be good, but it was important that they be good together, and she and Adepero had this chemistry. It was clear, in the room. You could believe that they would be friends and that they would be hanging out together.
I saw Aasha Davis (who plays the love interest, Bina) on TV. I had just watched an episode of Friday Night Lights. She had a three-episode arc, and I thought she was amazing.
And Sahra Mellesse (who plays Alike's little sister Sharonda) also came in on the short film. In the end, it was about the dynamics. Sahra worked well with Adepero, and they bounced off each other. We just found a really great ensemble cast.
With the parents, those were harder roles to cast. Our casting director, Eyde Belasco, actually ended up casting those roles out in L.A. With the family, we wanted to have a believable family dynamic. For the character of Audrey (Alike's mother), we had to have somebody who had that loneliness and vulnerability, and Kim [Wayans] was the only actress who really brought that forward. With Arthur (Alike's father), he needed to be somebody who was believably strong and was a man among men, but had this soft side for his daughter, and Charles Parnell really brought that forward. It was just a really beautiful ensemble cast, and we worked really hard and spent a lot of time to make sure that we got it right.
For rehearsals, I felt it was important to focus on building and strengthening the relationships between the characters and creating shared memories. So instead of table readings and running lines, I had Adepero and Pernell get into character and go to Dave & Buster’s in Times Square so they could experience what it’s like to be black and lesbian in a “straight environment.” Conversely, I also had them go in character to a Black & Latino lesbian party in NYC to experience and build a relationship.
For Aasha Davis’s character, Bina, I was fortunate to workshop the love scenes at the Sundance Director’s Lab where I had Aasha and Adepero ride the ski lift together and they exchanged letters while we were waiting for financing to come in.
Letter writing and card sending were also tools I used to create experience and back story for the relationship between the parents and from the parents to their kids, as well as between Laura and her sister Candace (played by Shamika Cotton).
Finally, before shooting I brought in a psychotherapist friend to conduct a mock therapy session with the actors playing Alike, Audrey, Arthur and Sharonda to really hone in on the family dynamics.
How would you describe your experience and relationship with Spike Lee as your mentor and the film’s executive producer?
Spike Lee came on as executive producer as we were developing the film. He was one of my professors at NYU, and I interned with him. So, that’s where the relationship started. He read the script and gave us feedback, and then Nekisa Cooper, the producer, asked him to come on board and become executive producer because he was basically acting as one by being such a mentor to us. He gave us guidance and feedback as we went through the process. It was great having him there, even as we moved on to distribution he was there.
How does Pariah universally appeal to audiences regardless of their race or orientation?
It’s important to note that I didn’t write Pariah worrying about how it would be received or what people would think. I knew that if I was true to Alike and her world, that people would be able to tap in. I really wanted to trust the audience, and knew the audience would be smart and be able to relate. At the end of the day, the film is about identity, friendship, family and love. Whether you are gay, straight, black, white, male, or female, the film invites you to connect with one or more of the characters in the story.
What message do you hope people walk away with?
I want people to be okay with the fact that it’s okay to be themselves and that they don’t have to check a box. Gay or straight, whoever you are, you need to be your authentic self and you don’t need to conform to people’s expectations of who you should be.
What’s next for Dee Rees?
I actually just finished another script for Focus Features, called Bolo. It’s a thriller, set in the South. I’m also working on a TV series with HBO and Viola Davis. And, I also finished another feature script called Large Print, which is about this 50-something insurance adjustor. This story talks about how to redefine happiness for yourself. I’m always excited about stories that allow me to explore a character and create interesting stories and worlds that haven't been seen before.
Watch the trailer for Pariah below. Find a listing of theaters here.