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Students Respond to “Pariah” Review

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

Last week, the Phoenix published Izzy Kornblatt’s review of “Pariah,” which screened on campus earlier this month. These replies are reactions to that opinions article, which you can find on this website under the Living & Arts – Around Campus tab.

I believe that the screening of the film Pariah and the Q&A with both the director and producer was one of the most valuable events I’ve attended at Swarthmore. From the very beginning of the movie, I could tell that everyone in the audience was just as riveted as I was. I assume they were just as amazed as I was at the intensity of its plot and the reality with which it was executed. The movie was full of multidimensional characters with which I, as well as many other members of the audience could commiserate. As a student who has recently come out to her parents, the movie hit very close to home as I imagine it did for many other people in the audience. However, it was not just because of its thematic elements that I enjoyed the film. The rich color schemes, excellent music choices, and brilliant understanding of interpersonal relationships, Pariah never once falls flat. Overall, I found myself in tears by the end, so excited by the plot that was unfolding in front of me that I had gotten completely lost in it.  At the final scene, the crowd erupted in an applause that seemed to last forever. Along with the valuable insights shared by the producer and director, I felt that this movie changed my perspective greatly and was a perfect event for the Swarthmore community.

–Emma Madarasz ‘15

After having watched Pariah on the order of three or four times, once in order to lead a group discussion about it for gifted high school sophomores, the thing that strikes me about it is its effortless balance of political identity and political identity, of specificity and universality. During the Q&A following the first screening at Swat, Dee Rees talked about both the universal aspect of the movie which gave it appeal for varying audiences and several media companies’ unwillingness to give her a deal because the movie was “too specific” (which, she quipped, was code for too black and too gay). I don’t share any of the political identities that are salient aspects of Alike’s experience, but the movie still hits on salient experiences in my own life. It weaves personal and political experiences together beautifully. The girl who remarks that Alike would be cute if she were a little harder claims “I like girls, but I love boys”–a pretty clear expression of bisexuality, sexual fluidity, and sexual ambiguity (all possibilities which Bina later rejects wholeheartedly). But to the girl, who so succinctly expresses this complex identity, it’s just her life. On Alike’s end of the interaction, she’s a distant crush made more unlikely by her gender and sexual identities. I can’t identify with the experience of exploring a lesbian identity, but who hasn’t had a crush that was a long shot—moreover, a crush that you had just because they expressed a little interest and you had no other options? When Alike gets a strap-on in order to be a little harder, she gets extremely embarrassed because (a) it’s a strap-on, and (b) it’s white. The sequence navigates both the difficulty of figuring out which gender performance feels comfortable, and the difficulty of doing so when the most available strap-ons don’t match your skin color. But it’s also about a person taking a risk sexually and then getting cold feet halfway through. Alike’s mother, Audrey, harasses both her daughters for how they dress. But Alike is harassed for identity, for how she performs her gender, whereas Sheronda gets harassed for performing traditional femininity too well—and therefore running the risk of being unchaste or growing up too fast. Many of us can probably relate to Sheronda’s predicament; some of us can relate to Alike’s. When Alike grooms Audrey’s hair, she remarks that the hair looks great down, to which Audrey responds that her father likes it up. It’s both an example of male privilege, of how the (often absent) father still rules the house, and a touching moment between mother and daughter—a touching moment in a crumbling family. In my own family, I’ve certainly seen moments when, with things rougher and more difficult than usual (if not to the same extent as in Alike’s family), the best hope for forgiveness seems to be to ignore all of the struggles and to try to love each other as if nothing had happened. In Alike’s relationship with Bina, we see a girl become completely vulnerable in her first sexual relationship—and then have it destroyed when the person she believed cared for her rejects her completely. That’s a universal experience, but one made harder by the facts that finding that first experience (and a healing second one) is harder as a lesbian, and that Bina hides behind her straight privilege, “just, you know, just doing my thing.” Alike’s breakdown at this rejection, too, is understandable; when people take enough shit, even the most stoic and quiet usually snap. But not everyone has had their identity maligned and spit on and used against them. And finally, there’s Alike’s insistence that “I am not running, I am choosing.” The movie ends with this choice; she leaves behind her father’s affair and her mother’s religious zeal. She leaves behind her mother and father, as well as her friend/lover Laura and her sister Sheronda. I know very well what it means to choose, and to leave some people and places behind in that choice. Everyone has to make those choices sometime. But I don’t know what it’s like to have to choose because your home has been made unsafe and unwelcoming, and to need to quest for some better place.

The movie is full of these artful narratives, simultaneously narratives about a social situation and narratives about individuals with so immediately felt reactions. Alike’s maturity and personal successes make the viewer feel good about the story. It’s uplifting that she makes it through. The slight jokes which Rees sneaks into the story, jokes that feel so natural, keep things upbeat. But Pariah is also horrifying in the sense that Alike faces so much systemic oppression that no 17-year-old should have to face. It probes its audiences and asks how they’re producing and reproducing this system. I know plenty of movies that do one of these things, but I’m aware of very few that do both so well at the same time.

— Mike Lumetta ‘15

I absolutely loved the film Pariah. By now, I have seen it three times and each time I discover something new. The film details the coming of age of a black lesbian in Brooklyn. But I would argue that it does so without relegating itself to being just another “gay” movie. We see the film’s main character Alike struggle with piecing together her identity as she attempts to balance the expectations of her friends and friend members. I especially enjoyed that the characters were not one-dimensional. Movies often lead audiences into very narrow views of characters, but here, every character had their own story, which made it impossible to make the easy judgments audience members are often encouraged to make. Each character had depth. For instance, Alike’s mother was not just the monster we sometimes hated her for being, but rather we could identify with her longing for love and could see that her actions were motivated by her desperate attempt to become closer to her loved ones.

In addition to taking the time for character  development, this film also took the time to allow Alike and Bina’s romance to develop. In many mainstream films, characters develop love interests and explore those seemingly overnight. Pariah adds the nuance that occurs in real romances by showing Alike and Bina’s affection grow and wane. And while I am critiquing mainstream films alot, I would like to add that Pariah also upstaged many films of the independent genre with its cinematography and soundtrack. It was beautifully shot and didn’t include the same standard folk guitar music often found in indie films. There are far too many reasons why this film was amazing for me to explain in the short space that I’ve been given. But I’d just like to end saying that, by  telling this coming of age story through this very refreshing lens,  and doing it so tastefully, the makers of this film challenge the notion that in order for a film to be good and for it to carry universal themes, it must tell its story from a white and/or heterosexual viewpoint. Don’t just take my word for it though, you should see it for yourself– it’ll be well worth your time.

–Niamba Baskerville ‘14

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