I’m a coming-of-age kind of girl. No film genre gives me greater pleasure than that which explores the pleasures and pitfalls of adolescence. Boys, girls, straight, gay–I love filmic representations of this tricky developmental stage. It’s no wonder, then, that the recent DVD release of Pariah, the feature-length debut of writer/director Dee Rees, caught my attention. The film stands out within the coming-of-age genre for its sophisticated representation of identity, with race, sex, gender, class, and sexuality complexly portrayed in the story of Alike, a Brooklyn teenager who struggles to reconcile her homosexuality with her family’s conservative conceptions of gender.
The trailer provides a nice overview of the conflicts within the film:
Externally, Alike struggles to meet her parents’ expectations, while internally, Alike spends the film trying to determine how best to express her identity. We see Alike trying out different scenes and expressing her gender and sexuality in different ways through art and fashion. Her mother, Audrey, encourages her to present herself in a more feminine manner, despite Alike’s desire to dress in more masculine cloths. Audrey also expresses disapproval over Alike’s best friend, Laura, requiring Alike instead to spend time with a coworker’s daughter named Bina. Alike initially gives Bina the cold shoulder, but gradually, the two bond over music, art, and Alike’s confessional poetry. Their friendship becomes romantic but turns complicated when Bina suddenly disavows her feelings for Alike. The remainder of the film focuses on Alike’s coming out to her parents and the fallout of that confrontation. While the ending of the film may not resolve all of the external conflicts of Pariah, the final moments leave you with a sense that Alike struggles less internally, more confident now in her identity as a young, lesbian woman.
Let’s be clear, though: Pariah not only focuses on sexuality, but also race, class, and gender, taking an intersectional approach to identity. Intersectionality, defined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, assumes that you cannot isolate the various characteristics of your identity, but that each facet your identity inflects the others. A straight man experiences masculinity in a different way than a gay man would; a black woman experiences her womanhood in a different way than a latina woman; the examples go on, but the point is that no identifying characteristic can be isolated from all others, but rather, they coalesce into a complicated interstices that is who we are and how we experience the world.
Pariah illustrates this concept beautifully by contrasting characters’ experiences. Alike and her best friend, Laura, provide one such contrast. While the two both take on a more “butch” presentation of gender as part of their lesbian identities, Laura’s experience within the black lesbian community differs dramatically from Alike’s. When the two regularly visit a lesbian club together, Laura appears more comfortable in these surroundings than Alike, who seems uncomfortable in the raw club environment where the expressions of sexuality are very overt (see the trailer for examples). Part of this difference between the girls seems to be in personality, with Alike clearly more introverted than the extroverted Laura.
But the girls also differ dramatically in terms of class, with Alike’s family firmly in the middle-class and Laura’s is more working-class. So, even though both girls’ mothers reject them, they experience their exile in different ways: Laura must move in with her sister, barely scraping by financially but able to earn her GED, while Alike joins an early college program at UC Berkeley. As a result, the class-based opportunities and means impact the survival strategies that each girl develops.
Gender also complicates representations of identity within the film. Alike’s more masculine presentation seems to alarm her mother, Audrey, as much as her sexuality. Bina, in contrast, effectively evades detection because of her conventional femininity. To be clear, Bina never identifies as a lesbian in the film, but her affection toward Alike suggests at least some genuine same-sex attraction. In short, Bina’s femininity gives her the privilege to more freely explore these feelings without punishment from her parents. It’s also her femininity that enables her to so easily disavow her attraction to Alike–she can more easily slip back into a traditional, heterosexual identity, as evidenced by a brief suggestion in the film that Bina reunites with a boyfriend shortly after her tryst with Alike. Gender, then, becomes as important to Alike’s difficulties with her family as does her sexuality.
Yet, race is another important factor in the film. The filmmakers draw from a long literary and film history of black “queer” artists, a fact signaled by an opening quotation from an Audre Lorde poem. Rees acknowledges the importance of this literary tradition in her own development, saying “I immersed myself in Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison — all this womanist literature,” and that “reading made me feel like I was OK, like I wasn’t alone.” Pariah, as a result, is rooted in a black womanist ethos.
Pariah‘s willingness to explore race, sexuality, gender, and class, makes it more than just a coming-of-age coming-out film. It reminds the viewer of the interesectional nature of identity and the challenges of being true to yourself in a similarly complex world.