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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sundance '11 Day 2: Pariah

By Wesley Morris -

So all that talk about returning the festival to its roots may not be bunk after all. At about 10:10 this morning a packed house of strangers wiped away tears and hooted and hollered when the credits began to roll for "Pariah," a very now movie that also feels very much like it could have been shown here in 1995. It also feels like an incidental rebuke of the festivals long-standing suggestion that the sexuality of young white boys is the center of the universe.

Dee Rees's "Pariah" is about the loosening of sexual and social expectations among black people in Brooklyn. Its protagonist, Alike (Adepero Oduye), lives two lives. By day, she's a poet and straight-A student from a tight middle-class family. By night, she's a steely fixture at a new lesbian nightclub that she doesn't really like. This is essentially a coming-out drama that naturally blends humor and crisis without ever blowing a gasket. 

In that sense the film communes with the  of New Queer Cinema of three decades ago. But it's also suffused with shifting social textures and wonderful grace notes. Alike (it's pronounced "AH-Leekay") has a loving but rigidly churchy mother (a very good Kim Wayans) and a loving but aloof detective father (an even better Charles Parnell), and they've given their daughter a long leash. Maintaining it requires Alike to maintain an illusion of femininity. So on her bus rides home, she removes her baseball cap and 'do rag and replaces her earrings. It's not much of a makeover, and yet watching her change broke my heart. She's going back into hiding. 

The hat and intimidating expression make Oduye, who makes a terrific sport out of being both recessive and intensely charismatic, look like a man. But the excitement and beauty of the movie is that it's not just a sexual coming-out but a racial one, too. She discovers she doesn't just like bohemian hip-hop. She likes hard black rock, too. "Pariah" is about the grunt work of identity politics. This is a 17-year-old girl trying to figure out what kind of black woman and lesbian to be.  


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