Pariah - Director Dee Rees
Director Dee Rees on the set © 2011 Focus Features

Writer/director Dee Rees’ movie Pariah has had an interesting history, starting as a short film completed in 2007, screened at over 40 festivals worldwide, including The Sundance Film Festival, and garnering 25 Best Short awards.

The movie was so well received that now it’s a full length feature, which once again stars Adepero Oduye as Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a 17-year-old African-American woman who lives with her parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) in a Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Alike is quietly but firmly embracing her identity as a lesbian, a fact that her parents can’t accept. The movie is very dear to Dee Ree’s heart, as it is semi-autobiographical. I spoke with Dee about the film, which has a limited opening this week.

How did the movie change from the short version?

Pariah - Poster, Adepero Oduye
Poster, Alike (Adepero Oduye) © 2011 Focus Features

The story changed in that the characters got more complex and I spent more time with Audrey and Arthur away from Alike. Also, I tried to push things more into subtexts and things happening between the lines, and not so on-the-nose.

In the initial version Arthur is the one who strikes Alike, and as I got to know him I realized he wouldn’t be capable of that, so Audrey had to be the one that did it. So that’s the kind of thing I learned about the characters.

Can you talk about the movie’s title?

Well, each of the main characters is a ‘pariah.’ They all have their fears, desires, strengths, weaknesses and isolations.

One thing I definitely worked on in the writing was showing the characters’ struggles to connect, and their worlds away from their families – where there are attitudes and expectations that they might not know how to handle.

Is Alike’s story at all in line with your own coming-out story?

Pariah - Director Dee Rees
Director Dee Rees on the set © 2011 Focus Features

As I was coming into my sexuality, I started to become comfortable with who I was. But I didn’t know how to express that. Alike struggles in the same way.

How should I be in the world? Should I wear baggy jeans and baseball caps? Or should I wear a skirt?

None of those identities is really me, and I finally came to the conclusion that I can just be myself and I don’t have to fit into any category.

I don’t have to put on any personae; I can just continue to be who I am. And that’s what Alike comes to realize in her journey.

Were you surprised at the changes you saw in Adepero from the first to second version of the film?

I knew that Adepero was perfect for the role when she first came in, so I wasn’t surprised at her performance. She was amazing from day one. I’m always amazed that she’s able to be so open and be so unselfconscious on the screen, because it’s not an easy thing that you’re asking actors to do, it’s just that complete trust.

I’m just amazed by the continued trust. There have been a lot times where she could over think it or become insecure, and Adepero didn’t go there, she stayed in the character and she really just trusted us and went there.

I think all of us changed and became more and more mature as the film progressed.

And speaking about bring mature, I was so shocked when I met Adepero today, because I thought she was a 17-year-old. When she came in to audition for you, did she look like she did today, a sophisticated 33-year old?

Pariah - Pernell Walker
Laura (Pernell Walker) © 2011 Focus Features

When she came into audition, she actually came in her little brother’s clothes, so she came in in character. She came in looking at the floor, she was in the zone.

So from first meeting her I could tell she was committed and she was totally submerged and had no vanity about being this person.

It’s great when people see her off-screen, so they see she’s really acting, this isn’t her. She’s seventeen years older and playing a different person.

Can you talk a little bit about how you picked the rest of the cast?

Finding the parents was hard. We went through a lot of Audreys, everybody kept giving me the surface angry black mama thing. Kim was the first one who really got Audrey’s core, who got the loneliness and got the vulnerability. Kim came in for her first audition and blew it away and that was it.

We saw a couple of Arthurs but couldn’t quite get that mix of this strong type but also who has a sensitivity, and Charles really brought that. I could feel him in the room and I could believe him. The DNA worked out where I believed that those two parents could produce Alike, so that’s how we cast them.

I saw Aasha Davis, who plays Alike’s love interest Bina, on an episode of Friday Night Lights, which was my favorite show ever. She had a three episode arc as a bipolar character and I thought, ‘She’s Bina.’ She had chemistry with Adepero so it worked out.

Were you kind of surprised to see Kim auditioning for the role of Audrey, because she’s known for her comedy work?

Pariah - Aasha Davis and Adepero Oduye
Bina (Aasha Davis) and Alike (Adepero Oduye) © 2011 Focus Features

I wasn’t surprised. Her manager talked to the casting director and said, ‘Look, you should just see her.’

So we saw her and it was immediately evident, she came in with the body language and was owning it, and was in the zone.

She really brought Audrey to life.

Why is now the right time to tell this story?

I started six years ago, and to me then was the time! (she laughs) It was just something that I felt passionate about.

It’s about identity and about finding yourself, and it was a struggle that I was going through so I wanted it to be out there.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.