Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reverend's Interview: Keeping It Real in Pariah

One of the most acclaimed films from this year's Sundance Film Festival, Pariah, will finally be making it to theaters this month. The semi-autobiographical drama about the coming of age of a lesbian teenager is scheduled to open in Los Angeles and New York on December 28th and will open nationwide in January.

I first heard of Pariah two years ago. It was initially a well-received short film, and producer Nekisa Cooper was then working hard to raise the funds necessary to expand it into a feature. Cooper and writer-director Dee Rees had an impressive endorsement letter from no less than Spike Lee, for whom Rees had worked on When the Levees Broke and Inside Man. Lee serves as one of the feature's executive producers.

Their hard work has paid off. The finished film is an authentic and moving exploration of a young woman trying to integrate her identity. Confident that "God doesn't make mistakes," 17-year old Alike (pronounced "Ah-lee-kay" and sometimes referred to as "Lee" for short) has to contend with her conservative-Christian mother as well as with other teens not yet as comfortable in their own shoes as Alike. Adepero Oduye gives a breakthrough performance in the lead role, and Kim Wayans (perhaps best remembered as Benita Butrell and other wacky characters from the 1990's TV sketch series In Living Color) is a revelation as Alike's conflicted mother.

Rees recently spoke with me from New York. "It's been a labor of love," Rees said of her six-year odyssey to make Pariah, first as a short and then as a feature. "Our audience reactions have been overwhelmingly positive; (the film) has universal appeal and has been shown not only at LGBT film festivals but at mainstream festivals." LGBT-friendly Focus Features, which has also released such popular movies as Brokeback Mountain and Milk, quickly snapped up the rights to Pariah following its Sundance screening. "It's every filmmaker's dream to have their film released by a major company," according to Rees. "Focus has been incredibly supportive."

Spirituality plays a major role in Alike's journey. Both Rees and Cooper were raised in devout Christian families, and Cooper's father serves as a Catholic deacon. "If anything, it's my spirituality that got me through the past six years," Rees reflects. "My spirituality and spiritual practice have actually gotten stronger than they were before going through this." While their parents will be invited to the official premiere of Pariah, Rees isn't sure how they will respond. "Hopefully," Rees said, "they will respond well so they can witness to other parents" of LGBT children.

With her profile on the rise in the industry, Rees just finished writing a new script for a thriller and is working with HBO on developing a TV series. She speaks appreciatively of all the support she has received, especially from two-time Oscar nominee Spike Lee. Rees calls Lee her mentor and states "He's been a great guiding hand."

"I'm not running, I'm choosing," Alike says in Pariah of a life-changing, climactic decision she makes. It's a statement Rees wholeheartedly agrees with. "I think questioning and affirming your identity is a universal theme, and I definitely want gay teens to connect with the film and see that it's ok to be them."

She concluded, "If you strip away race and sexuality, we are all searching for the same things when it comes to identity. That's what this film is about."

Reverend's Rating: A-

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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