Criterion Review: Dee Rees’ PARIAH

A deeply personal tale told with a vibrant and distinct voice


The path to living as one’s authentic self is paved with trials and tribulations in this revelatory, assured feature debut by Dee Rees — the all-too-rare coming-of-age tale to honestly represent the experiences of queer Black women. Grounded in the fine-grained specificity and deft characterizations of Rees’s script and built around a beautifully layered performance from Adepero Oduye, Pariah follows Brooklyn teenager Alike, who is navigating the emotional minefields of first love and heartache and the disapproval of her family as she expresses her gender and sexual identities within a system that does not make space for them. Achieving an aching intimacy with its subject through the expressive cinematography of Bradford Young, this deeply felt portrait finds strength in vulnerability and liberation in letting go.

Pariah is one of those films that feels like lightning in a bottle. A raw and immersive experience. Educational, in how it portrays the plight of this young woman. Enthralling, in terms of the emotional potency of the storytelling and committed cast. Alike (a remarkable and empathetic Adepero Oduye) is a young teen growing up in Brooklyn. An aspiring writer looking for an outlet, lacking a connection at home, in school, or amongst her few friends. For Alike, this is a tale of not just self-discovery, but dealing with racism, generational prejudice and conflict with religious beliefs. Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and father, Arthur (Charles Parnell) draw a hard line against homosexuality, are dedicated to their faith, and also worry about how they are perceived by their community. Grappling with her sexuality, we witness a (lacking) support system being pulled out from under Alike in a world where she has already been marginalized. Pariah runs the gamut of friendship, love, and heartbreak, reinforces the idea of how fluid sexual identity can be, and challenges our perceptions and efforts as a society.

There has been a wave of beautifully wrought LGBTQI stories hitting our screens (big and small) over the past few years. Brokeback Mountain, Beginners, Blue is the Warmest Color, God’s Own Country, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite, Euphoria, and perhaps most pertinently Moonlight. But Pariah stands as a very important milestone in the progression of queer cinema. It still feels urgent, and vital, even with the strides queer cinema has take in the past few years. Much of this is rooted in the tale being rooted in the semi-autobiographical nature. Writer/director Dee Rees (Bessie, Mudbound) delivers a tale with a personal stamp coupled to a real grasp of cinematic craft. Pariah often feels like it is shifting itself around in terms of look and sound, making it difficult to put a label on, much like Alike. Visually vibrant (a superb collaboration with DoP Bradford Young), with an eclectic score and musical selection to match. The creative (and lyrical) qualities of the protagonist add a soulful, and oft poetic tone, reminding you that she is the focus. Despite being so personal, Pariah assuredly illuminates how there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to finding your path or being an ally to someone discovering who they are.

The Package

The Criterion showcases a new 2K master from the 35mm original stock, one that really shows off Bradford Young’s cinematography. The vivid palette is very well represented. Detail impresses, especially evident with the abundance of closeup shots. A textured, warm, and overall stunning transfer. Extra features are not big in number, but what is included is of good quality and suitably considered to accompany the film:

  • New conversation between director Dee Rees and filmmaker and professor Michelle Parkerson: Something for all the aspiring filmmakers out there, as Rees discusses her transition from marketing into movies, as well as the inspiration behind Pariah
  • New cast reunion featuring Rees and actors Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, and Aasha Davis, moderated by film scholar Jacqueline Stewart: Recorded at an event to mark the 10 year anniversary of the film’s release. It offers some insights into the collaborative process amongst the cast, the investment in the story, and experiences making the film
  • New program on the making of the film, featuring Rees, cinematographer Bradford Young, production designer Inbal Weinberg, producer Nekisa Cooper, and editor Mako Kamitsuna, moderated by Stewart: Entitled Department Heads, this is a very well put together exploration of how Pariah was put on screen, the challenges, the overall production, the aesthetic, cinematography, and more. Running nearly 40 minutes, a very insightful look into the process, and more importantly the brilliant work achieved on a very small budget
  • New interview with film scholar Kara Keeling, author of Queer Times, Black Futures: A more borad look at Pariah in the context of African-American, and LQBTQ cinema
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Cassie da Costa: Presented in the liner booklet, which also contains information on the new transfer, along with stills from the film
  • New cover illustration by Xia Gordon

The Bottom Line

Pariah shakes up the coming of age tale into a vital journey of discovery, and illuminating of the struggles many face along the way. Intimately told, impactful filmmaking, with representation at the forefront. It’s a welcome release from Criterion, one that expands the diversity and representation of the cinematic voices they champion, and truly celebrates the craft and distinct voice of Dee Rees, and all involved in Pariah.

Pariah is available via Criterion from June 29th

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