Refusing Invisibility: ‘Pariah’ Challenges Social and Religious Norms
by David J. Leonard
In exploring the dialectics between race, class, gender, and sexuality, Pariah examines the depths of “Otherness.” The film begins with a definition of a pariah, as “a person without status. A rejected member of society. An outcast.” Alike navigates many different worlds, seemingly unable to meet the demands and expectations of society and its members. At home, her sexuality and her gendered identity (her clothing choices) conflict with the demands and expectations of her parents. At the club, her lack of aggressiveness and her perceived limited confidence, positions her outside of peers. At school, she sits alone, as the “popular” girls gossip about both the boys and the “AGs” – the aggressive girls.
“The two worlds that ‘Pariah’ visits might as well be parallel universes, although they are within blocks of each other,” writes Stephen Holden in his New York Times review. “The raunchy women’s dance club to which Alike is drawn has nothing in common with her pious household, where a stiff, artificial cheer and tense formality pass for familial togetherness. Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life between the two while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” Yet, Alike is of course not the only pariah within the film.
Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike’s best friend, lives with her sister because she was kicked out of her house presumably because of her mom’s homophobia. Even Alike’s mom, whose pious and conservative demeanor renders her as an outsider, as alienated from her daughter, her husband, and her peers at work, is somewhat of a pariah. Summer M, at Black Youth Project, argues in fact that Audrey continues the historic representations of black mothers as “cold, irrational, and incapable of unconditional love.” Yet, in imagining her through a lens of middle-class and Christian respectability, and providing her with some depth, the film constructs Audrey as a different sort of pariah.
While a story of “simplicity,” Pariah offers a complex representation of identity. Evident in the narrative and in Alike’s recitation of her spoken word poetry, Pariah represents her as a trapped butterfly; her beautiful identity is confined by the demands that she behave and act in accordance with identity of a young, middle-class, heterosexual black woman. In one of the more powerful scenes from the film, Alike announces: “Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise. For even breaking is opening. I am broken. I am open. See the love shine in through my cracks. See the light shine out through me. My spirit takes journey. My spirit takes flight. And I am not running. I am choosing.” In other words, like a butterfly, Alike chooses to break free from the confines of her parents’ expectations, the homophobia of society, and even the requirements for acceptance within middle-class religious communities. She refuses their definition of the politics of respectability just as Dee Rees refuses the systemic erasure of black lesbian youth from the mainstream. Choosing her own path, her own flight, Alike’s beauty shines through with clarity and inspiration. Emphasizing her power and agency, Pariah represents Alike and her sense of identity as beautiful.
One of the most interesting and telling aspects of Pariah is the ways it uses music. Including a range of artists, from Khia, Daisha, and Kandi Cole to Honeychild Coleman, Audio Dyslexia, and Tamar-Khali. The efforts to highlight “underground” female artists reflect the efforts of the movie to make visible those experiences, voices, and identities that are ubiquitously rendered invisible. Yet, the music selection is telling in other ways, as the film disentangles black contemporary identity from hip-hop, arguing that black identity and artistic contributions include, but are not limited by hip-hop. The film includes Afro-Punk artists, those who embody a rock aesthetic, and a more R&B sound. The hegemonic inscription of black identity through mainstream rap music reflects the narrow constructions of blackness, the systemic definition of blackness through narrow notions of authenticity. The film explores and explodes this in both its musical choice and its narrative direction. In one scene, Alike and Bina (Aasha Davis) listen and discuss music; Alike is shocked that her presumably “normal” and “mainstream” friend listens to rock music. The efforts to disentangle social location (class, race, and identity) from music are emblematic of the larger purpose of the film, one that disrupts notions of authenticity.
Pariah leaves much unsaid. While clearly part of the overall effort is to focus the story on Alike and give voice to her identity formation, it challenges the belief that the viewers are entitled to every piece of information. Viewers are made to believe that Arthur is having an affair; it also hints at conflict between his relationship and Audrey stemming from past choices. Similarly, viewers are never told why Laura leaves home or the relationship between Laura’s sister and her mother. We know very little here, not so much because it is not important or illustrative to the story or character development, but because it is information that viewers are not entitled to know. It points to the power of the film, one that leads viewers to see and experience, yet doesn’t give audiences full-access defined by spectacle and the powerful gaze of the audience.