I’m (Just Not) Political: Pariah
by Alex Juhasz — Pitzer College
December 30, 2011 – 13:39
To begin, I think Pariah is terrific. Dee Rees is a very talented writer and director whose grasp of her craft is exceptional for a young artist. She has made a moving character study in the melodramatic form where her vivid style is in service of character development and depth.
I believe that Pariah is the second film by and about African American lesbians to have a theatrical release. The first was Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman, which I produced in 1995 (Dunye‘s The Owls which I produced in 2011, has just started streaming on Netflix but did not have theatrical).
Now that there’s two, we can look to where black lesbian cinema has arrived fifteen years later. WMW occurs in the material world, and the world of film. It is all about ideological context: black lesbian feminist theory, politics, institutions, and movies. It is highly self-referential to ideas about representation and to expressions of lesbian, feminist and queer community and history. In this regard, it is much like many of its brother films of the “New Queer Cinema” (Poison, Swoon, The Living End, Young Soul Rebels). Meanwhile, Pariah is deeply even purely personal. Shot almost entirely in exquisite and often extreme close-ups, the surrounding world becomes barely visible, so much so that Pariah is the rare New York City film where the mean streets don’t become a character (take for example, those of Dees’ fellow NYUers Spike Lee and Martin Scorcese). In fact, Alike’s pursuit of freedom eventually leads her to leave New York, en route to California (and college), where the promise of intellectual (and political?) community beckons. For Alike, New York is only and always home: melodrama’s confining world of mother, family, and out-of-touch dogme. While Dees begins her film with a quotation from Audre Lorde, this is the only glimmer of several generations of black, feminist, lesbian history and culture that touches the film or her film’s lead. Even Alike’s inspiring poetry teacher pushes her by making her search more internal: into her deepest self and feelings. But like any (male) hero, Alike discovers she’s all road. Just so, the WMW seems to envision the quest that Alike just might be lucky enough to go on at her film’s happy ending. In WMW, Cheryl spends the film travelling a uniquely black and lavendar road (from “Sistah Sound” in Philly, to the “CLIT lesbian archives” in NY, to the private archives of a black film buff, and the uptight mansion of a white female early film director’s homophobic sister) so as to learn from a variety of her black/queer mentors, wise in the histories she needs to learn for an internal growth that just might happen when her film ends: “I am a black lesbian filmmaker and I have a lot to say.”
Fifteen years later, Dees gets to begin from this proud, private, political place that Dunye claims, and that is the inspiring and exciting (if enragingly slow) circle of (black lesbian) legacy and sisterhood: from personal to political to personal again. While other film traditions—and their fans, scholars, and makers—get larger bodies of work upon which to build sensibilities, trends, and movements, these artists must do so in an intimate, personal dialogue. And maybe that’s not all bad. Here, a scene from The Owls (again including Audre Lorde) seems an apt conclusion. Carol (played by Cheryl Dunye) is having a conversation with Skye (Skyler Cooper). “Let me tell you about my generation and being happy. We had Audre Lorde.” “Who’s that?” “You don’t know who Audre Lorde is! She said: ‘I’m a black, lesbian, mother, poet, warrior out in the world doing my work. Are you doing yours?’” “What does that mean?” “It means are you out, fighting, working for justice!” Skye says: “I’m just not political.” But Dees is: out in the world that is, doing her work in just the way that her generation will, in conversation with ours, by making powerful personal films.