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Wed December 28, 2011
Coming Out, Coming Of Age As A Teen 'Pariah'
Originally published on Wed December 28, 2011 5:32 pm
When the new film Pariah opens nationally, it's safe to say it will not be competing with any other movies about a black teenager coming of age as a lesbian in Brooklyn.
"It's not so much coming out, but coming into," clarifies director Dee Rees. "Alike, the main character, knows she loves women. That's not her struggle. Her struggle's more how to be in the world."
Right at the beginning of the film, Alike visits a bustling lesbian nightclub for the first time. She's both transfixed and horrified by the gleaming, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination pole dancers.
"It was important for the opening to be very provocative," Rees says. "And so like Alike, we're patted down, stamped and shoved into the world without explanation."
Pariah's entrance into the world was assisted partly by the Sundance Institute, which helped develop the film from a short into Rees' first dramatic feature. Earlier this year, the film was given the honor of opening the Sundance Film Festival.
"Everyone that's up on the mountain that day, you sort of force them to see these films," says festival director Trevor Groth, who acknowledges that the film's subject matter is not exactly mainstream. But he said it enjoyed "a huge audience reaction," and Focus Features reportedly outbid competing offers to acquire Pariah for around $800,000.
Producer Nekisa Cooper says Pariah is not without autobiographical elements both for her and Rees. "I can definitely identify with coming out and going to the club and feeling, like not hard enough or soft enough; I was uncomfortable," she says. "And people were uncomfortable with me."
Back then, Cooper spent her days in the corporate world. She met Rees when they were both freshly minted MBAs working at Colgate Palmolive.
"I was working on toothbrushes and she was working on toothpaste," Cooper laughs. "You know, I was walking down the hallway one day at Colgate — and there aren't many people of color in this space — and saw her coming toward me. And at the time, she had this almost Diana Ross-like Afro. Very stunning."
The two began to date. While the relationship did not last, the friendship endured. Soon Rees abandoned the corporate world for film school. And Cooper wound up producing her first documentary, a process she describes as not unlike doing brand management for Colgate. The documentary, Eventual Salvation, aired on the Sundance Channel a few years ago. It followed the story of Rees' grandmother, who expatriated to Liberia in the 1950s.
Pariah is also fundamentally a story about family. Rees was intent on building believable relationships between Alike, the movie's teenage lesbian protagonist, and her disapproving parents.
"I had a psychotherapist friend come in and do a mock therapy session with the actors," she explains. "It really helped create this passive aggressive tension that runs underneath everything."
Cooper says she and Rees took their parents to see Pariah very recently. Before that screening, they said they'd never been able to talk openly with their parents about their lives as gay women.
"And afterward my father stood up and had tears in his eyes," Cooper says. "They understood Alike's angst more — and my angst, coincidentally — after having seen the movie. And my father apologized for some of the things he said when I came out to them."
Pariah is about family stories, coming-of-age stories and stories about coming into the world. And Pariah completely transformed the stories of Cooper and Rees as well.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Twenty five years ago, a movie by a young African-American filmmaker made waves in theaters. "She's Gotta Have It" revolved around a young woman's sexual awakening. Director Spike Lee paid for it with credit cards. Now, Lee is one of America's most respected filmmakers. And he's also executive producer of a brand-new film by a young African-American filmmaker, about a young woman's sexual awakening.
NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on "Pariah."
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Like Spike Lee, director Dee Rees and producer Nekisa Cooper worked with a ridiculously tiny budget for their first feature.
DEE REES: And we did make the film on layaway and...
NEKISA COOPER: And coupons.
ULABY: Still, Pariah made quite a splash at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Festival director Trevor Groth selected it as one of the few to screen on opening night.
TREVOR GROTH: Everyone that's up on the mountain that day, you kind of force them to go see these films. It had a huge audience reaction.
ULABY: Groth said Pariah reminded people of the Sundance mission - discovering exciting, new filmmakers.
GROTH: And for us, "Pariah" did just that. It's such a fresh voice.
ULABY: When Pariah opens nationally, it's safe to say it will not be competing with any other movies about an African-American teenager coming of age as a lesbian in Brooklyn.
Director Dee Rees.
REES: It's not so much coming out, but coming into. You know, Alike, the lead character, knew that she loves women. That's not her struggle, but her struggle is more how to be in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARIAH")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Eighteen to party, 21 to drink. Have your IDs ready, ladies.
ULABY: At the beginning of the film, Alike visits a lesbian nightclub for the first time. She's transfixed and horrified by the pole dancers gleaming with oil and leaving nothing to the imagination.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARIAH")
KHIA: (Singing) All you ladies, pop your (beep) like this. Shake your body. Don't stop, don't miss. Just do it.
REES: It was real important for the opening to be very provocative. And so, like Alike, we're patted down, we're stamped and we're shoved into the world without explanation.
ULABY: While her best friend fits easily into the strip club, Alike realizes it's not her scene at all.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARIAH")
ADEPERO ODUYE: (as Alike) I got to go. I'm tripping. I'm going to get in trouble.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me dance with Shorty right quick, and then I'll be right.
ODUYE: (as Alike) What?
ULABY: This scene, like so many others in the film, is somewhat autobiographical for Rees and producer, Nekisa Cooper.
COOPER: I can definitely identify with coming out and going to the club and feeling like I wasn't hard enough or soft enough. I was uncomfortable with myself, so people were uncomfortable with me.
ULABY: Back then, Cooper's days were spent in the corporate world. She met Dee Rees when they were both young managers with MBAs working a Colgate Palmolive.
COOPER: You know, I was walking down the hallway one day in Colgate and there aren't, you know, many people of color in this space and saw her coming toward me. And, at the time, she had this really almost like Diana Ross-like afro, very stunning.
ULABY: The two began to date.
COOPER: I was working on toothbrushes and she was working on toothpaste.
ULABY: That love story did not last, but the friendship endured. Soon, Rees abandoned the corporate world for film school and Nekisa Cooper wound up producing her first documentary. She says that work was a lot more like brand management than you'd think.
COOPER: Brand management is all about taking an idea for a project, a product, a concept and walking it through the various stages to get to the end user, the end consumer.
ULABY: The end consumer in this case was the Sundance Channel. It aired their documentary a few years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULABY: The documentary followed the story of Dee Rees' grandmother, who expatriated to Liberia in the 1950s. Their new film, "Pariah," is also a story about family. Rees was intent on building believable relationships between the movie's protagonist, the teenage lesbian, and her disapproving parents.
REES: So I had a psychotherapist friend come in and just conduct a mock therapy session with the actors. It really helped, you know, create this passive aggressive tension that kind of runs underneath everything.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARIAH")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Alike's mother) Now, go get changed.
ODUYE: (as Alike) Dad, what's wrong with this outfit?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Alike's father) Nothing.
ODUYE: (as Alike) See?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Alike's mother) I'm not going to argue with you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Alike's father) Do what she says.
ODUYE: (as Alike) Dad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Alike's father) Ungawa(ph).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Alike's mother) And put on a skirt.
COOPER: This film has been cathartic for our parents in our relationships with them.
ULABY: Producer Nekisa Cooper says she and director Dee Rees took their parents to see "Pariah" very recently. Prior to that screening, they said they'd never been able to talk openly with their parents about their lives as gay women.
COOPER: And, afterwards, my father stood up and he had tears in his eyes and they understood Alike's angst, I think, more and my angst, you know, coincidentally enough, after having seen the movie. And my father apologized for some of the things that he said initially when I came out to them.
ULABY: "Pariah" is about what people feel and say in family stories, coming of age stories and stories about coming into the world. And for Nekisa Cooper and Dee Rees, making "Pariah" completely transformed their own stories.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.