AWH’s to-watch: Dee Rees’ ‘Pariah’

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I’ve written a bit about the narrow, dehumanizing stereotypes that characterize most representations of women of color, especially black women, in mainstream media. So you might understand why I’m so excited about Pariah, a movie opening this week about a young black woman beginning to explore her sexuality and gender identity and dealing with implications of this on her relationships with family and friends.

Not only is Pariah about a queer, gender non-conforming woman of color, it’s written and directed by Dee Rees, herself a black lesbian. A big contributor to negative images of women of color is that most entertainment that depicts us are produced by people who aren’t women of color (and this goes for any marginalized group). It’s not that it’s impossible for someone to produce an authentic and nuanced portrayal of lives and communities they’ve never experienced. But it’s extremely difficult when the bulk of power to tell stories about a marginalized group – and therefore shape perceptions about that group – lies in the hands of people who are societally privileged. This easily lends itself to stereotyped, two-dimensional, and/or prejudiced portrayals.

(I’ll try to post a transcript of this later. ht to @NorthStarPics, from the production company run by Rees and Nekisa Cooper, for bringing this clip to my attention.)

So I’m thrilled that Pariah is getting the attention and acclaim it as a film that is created by a queer black woman and is about a queer black woman. Being able to tell our own stories and exercise creative control over how we are portrayed is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s especially powerful when story tellers, like Dee Rees has done, make an effort to depict marginalized identities as not monolithic, encompassing a diversity of experiences and perspectives – you know, just like anyone else! Telling a single story about a group of people is an incredibly effective way to dehumanize them.

I’m also loving that the critical acclaim and attention Pariah is receiving has created a space for other women of color who are queer and/or gender non-conforming to reflect on their identities and coming out process. Here are a few of my favorite personal reflections on Pariah:

On Autostraddle, Spectra discusses how Pariah spoke to her as a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. and masculine presenting woman of color:

I remember holding my breath during pivotal scenes in the movie — like when Alike was forced to put her earrings back on before she returned home in an effort to hide her gender identity from her parents. I wondered nervously if my brother saw then the direct parallels to his own sister’s life, if he could finally understand that my protesting the outfit my mother had brought with her from Nigeria wasn’t just about defying norms for the sake of being a rebel; I really did feel more like a boy than a girl.

At New American Media, Jamilah King writes about the day her mom, who had struggled with King’s coming out as lesbian, became her ally.

“Are you going to that gay pride parade?” my mother asked late one morning as I was rushing off to work last June. For a moment, I didn’t know how to respond. I stopped in my tracks, looked back at her and mumbled something about how I’d probably be too busy and didn’t like big crowds anyway. Sensing my discomfort, mom nonchalantly added, “Well, if you decide to go, I could go with you.”

Also at New American Media, Jean Melesaine writes about how emigrating from her family’s native Western Samoa (where traditional gender categories are broader) to the US, where her family became part of conservative Mormon churches, led her to struggle with her sexual orientation and gender identity.

In jail, during my booking, the officer asked me what my sexual orientation was. Even though it’s illegal for them to ask, I answered anyway—with a lie. I told him I was straight, and then sat in the holding cell thinking about what the officer had taken from me. How could I be so brave to put my life at risk from all the bad choices I’ve made and not be brave enough to be honest with myself? Moments like that made me think about myself, and in jail I could do a lot of that. Thinking, talking, writing and reading.

Salamishah Tillet’s article on Black lesbian films that paved the way for Pariah is a great read, too.

Pariah opens in national release this Friday. I’ll definitely be checking it out as soon as possible, and I hope you will, too!


  1. yes, this looks great & I have been waiting to see it for awhile! I am curious about how the film handles the balance and differences btwn sexual & gender identities.

    • Yea, it’ll be interesting to see if there’s much of a distinction made. Thanks for the comment, Robyn!