Director Dee Rees turned a little story about a Brooklyn teen coming out and risking family and friendship to embrace her life as a lesbian into a bold, powerful, cinematic feature film experience. And the movie Pariah, starring Adepero Oduye as Alike and Kim Wayans as Alike's mother, is now an Indie film sensation. The Sundance Film Festival award-winning film, executive produced by Spike Lee, has been nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards and its universal message of identity is relatable to all audiences.
BET.com spoke to Rees about Pariah’s Spike connection, how the semi-autobiographical film differs from her own coming-out experience and how Pariah turned Wayans into a dramatic actress that audiences are seeing for the first time.
While in film school at New York University you interned with Spike Lee. How did that happen and what did you learn from him?
That came about because Spike Lee teaches the master classes at NYU. He would have office hours where anybody could sign up and talk to him. And of course I would sign up every single week and find something to talk to him about. He would also offer internships to his students. I applied for an internship on Inside Man, got it and was working with the script supervisor. That was the best possible place to be to see how Spike interacted with his crew and cast. And then I interned with him again on the documentary When the Levees Broke. Again, I got to be very close to the process and got a chance to observe the inner workings of a set.
Spike Lee was also an executive producer of Pariah. What exactly were his contributions to the film?
When I was his intern, Spike would read drafts of Pariah and give me feedback on it. In 2009, our producer Nekisa Cooper asked Spike to formalize his role because he had been giving us advice all along. He was basically acting as an executive producer, so we asked him to become a part of the production and he said yes. We were really happy of course. Nekisa asked him to write a check and Spike said no, but what he gave us was his time, which was more valuable. Spike would answer the phone when nobody else would, answer emails and go through our budget with a ruler and give advice. He really was a mentor to us, he took us under his wing and gave us feedback every step of the way. And after we shot the film, Spike would watch scenes of it and give us feedback on the cuts.
You’ve discussed being a lesbian and how Pariah contains semi-autobiographical moments from your life. But can you talk a bit about which aspects of the story came from you and where the coming-out experiences of you and the character Alike differ?
My story differs firstly because I’m from Nashville, Tennessee; I’m from the suburbs and Alike’s life takes place in this very hip Brooklyn brownstone. Alike comes out in the story at 17 and I didn’t come out until I was 27 — I was living independently and paying my own rent. But I wanted to set the story within the life of a 17-year-old because the stakes were higher, it’s also a more important discovery to make at a younger age. The things that were semi-autobiographical were the idea of gender identity. When I first came out I realized there was a spectrum. When I would go to the clubs there were the women with the baseball caps, doo-rags and baggy jeans that were very butch. And I didn’t feel like I fit in with that. At the opposite end were girls in skirts and heels backing it up and I didn’t feel like I really fit in with that either. I was in a turtleneck and jeans — kind of in-between. Also, the idea of my spirituality and sexuality did not have to be something mutually exclusive. I had to realize that I am who I am and God still loves me, and that’s something that Alike goes through.
Kim Wayans puts in an amazing, heartbreaking performance as the family matriarch, Audrey. Since she’s best known for her comic work, how did you know she’d be able to embody this role?
We read a lot of Audreys but nobody was able to capture the core of the character. We kept getting stereotypes — we kept getting the "angry Black momma" thing. When Kim’s name first came up, I thought In Living Color is great, but I’m not sure. But Kim was the first one to walk in the room and immediately have Audrey’s loneliness and vulnerability. I knew that she was the one from the first audition. She blew it out of the water, like the role was hers. She was the first person to bring the nuance of who Audrey was. Kim blew it away.
Pariah is a very multifaceted story about an urban teen coming out, seeking love and acceptance from her parents, peers and finding her place in the world. But ultimately, what do you want audiences to get from it?
I want people to get from Pariah that it’s okay to be you and not to check a box as a parent or child. You don’t have to make your life look like anybody else says it should look. You don’t have to make yourself look like people expect you to look. It’s okay to be yourself, and to love and accept yourself however you are.
Pariah arrives in theaters December 28.
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