Alike (Adepero Oduye) navigates her complex relationships at school and at home in the new film Pariah.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) navigates her complex relationships at school and at home in the new film Pariah. Focus Features
Pariah, which generated a lot of buzz at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and opens in select U.S. theaters Wednesday, is a coming-of-age film about falling in love and embracing one's identity. The movie follows a 17-year-old black lesbian named Alike (pronounced "uh-LEE-kay") as she navigates her complex relationships at school and at home.
Director Dee Rees tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin that the film is semi-autobiographical.
"Alike knows that she loves women; that's not the question. The question is 'how to be,'" she says. "And so, in my own struggle, a large part of my question was how to be in the world."
Rees wrote the first draft of the feature script in the summer of 2005, around the time she was coming out herself.
She says she found the star of the film, Adepero Oduye, on the first day of auditions.
"She had on her little brother's clothes, and she was just already in the zone." (Alike experiments with dress as she tries to discover how to be.)
But Oduye was not vying for the lead role — she just wanted to be an extra — so the offer to play Alike came as a surprise and a thrill.
"I remember being very excited," Oduye says. "When I read the script, I immediately related to that idea of not feeling free, just kind of feeling kind of held back by your circumstances, conditioning, all of that stuff."
Oduye says that playing Alike required her to be vulnerable and open.
"As you kind of grow up in life, as an adult, you learn to kind of cover all that up. So as an actor, it's a pretty exhausting task to constantly do that," she says. "It was a very nurturing environment Dee set up, so I was able to continually go to certain places that are just superuncomfortable and superpainful."
Director Dee Rees on the set of her film, Pariah.
Director Dee Rees on the set of her film, Pariah. Jenny Baptiste
Rees adds, "When we first meet Alike, we're kind of thrust into this world — this kind of hypersexualized environment [the club]. We see this woman who's kind of a chameleon, she's painted by the light around her. And then we see her in the next scene on a bus, transforming into something else that she's not."
Alike's parents each react differently when they learn that she is a lesbian. The couple is also struggling with their own marriage and personal happiness. Rees explains that Alike's father, Arthur, played by Charles Parnell, wanted to be a doctor but ended up being a police officer. Alike's mother, Audrey, played by Kim Wayans, is unable to achieve the picture-perfect family for which she strove so hard.
Pariah is making its theatrical debut following a rash of suicides by gay teens who did not feel accepted.
"The timing has worked out," Rees says, "because there is this awareness about bullying and some of the other things that are going on."