In the film Pariah, young seventeen-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye), a lower-class girl growing up in Brooklyn, begins to experience dramatic issues of self-reflection and identity when she becomes aware of her feelings for other women. This emotional journey takes her through tremendous trials, mostly due to the homophobic nature of the culture in which she lives, and the resistance of her family. Pariah, as a film, explores the contradictory and tragic nature of black gays and lesbians having to survive and thrive in an increasingly homophobic African-American community through the use of performance and color. Alike explores the strange continuum that exists between young black lesbians and others in their community, finding her way through her own feelings and experiences as a lesbian.
The film opens with a quote from Audre Lorde: "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." This statement is indicative of Alike's predicament throughout the film, as she attempts to find footing and support for herself in this increasingly hostile environment, but cannot seem to find it. Our first glimpse of Alike is in a medium shot that begins at an extremely askew angle; she almost seems to be as upside-down as the strippers she is ogling, but the angle of the camera suggests her own disorientation with herself and her identity. This is how we first see Alike, and how she sees herself; essentially aware of what she wants to be, but not sure how to express it.
The cinematography reflects this dichotomy between acting straight and being gay; the color purple is notably used to indicate places or moments where she feels most comfortable with her sexuality. The lesbian club she frequents is doused in purple light. Bina's room, where she flirts with Alike, has many pink and purple objects around the room, and Bina herself frequently wears purple. The scene where Bina and Alike hold each other while Alike's parents fight is bathed in purple light, and the final shot of Alike, on the bus heading for a new future, is eclipsed by a purple beam of light before the film ends, indicating her own security with her sexuality.
Alike explores her sexuality in many ways throughout the film. She alternates between dressing like a man and like a woman; she takes hints from her supportive lesbian friend, Laura as to how to be more assertive and be with women, even to the point of borrowing a strap-on to simulate a penis; and she starts exploring her feelings for a girl named Bina for whom she falls. All of these tentative first steps at forbidden love are shown in the film with great sensitivity, as she finds safe places to express herself. Her parents notably provide considerable resistance to the idea of her being gay - any opportunity at all to assume she has a boyfriend is clung to desperately, and Audrey, Alike's mother, does her best to scold and discipline Alike into being 'normal.' Despite this tumultuous home life, Alike finds solace in certain places and with certain people, so she can be herself.
In conclusion, Pariah presents the theme of exploring sexuality in an increasingly hostile home environment by showing Alike's journey being both comfortable and uncomfortable; angles and colors are used to demonstrate her confusion and curiosity as she works through her feelings for Biba and her attempts to hide her identity from her overbearing and insecure parents.
Rees, Dee. (dir.) Pariah. Perf. Adepero Oduye, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell. Focus Features,