Writer-director Dee Rees’ debut film Pariah was the Opening Night selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. This deeply personal story of a Brooklyn teenage lesbian poet struggling to come out of the closet is partially based on the filmmaker’s own life experience. Rees, and her luminous star Adeopro Oduye, sat down with PW for a frank discussion about the movie, and its effect on audiences.
PW: Adepero, most of the film seems to take place during close-ups on your face. It’s a remarkable performance, but are you comfortable seeing yourself so exposed onscreen?
Adepero Oduye: No! I’ve seen it twice and I don’t know when I’ll be able to see it again! The first time I saw it was opening night at Sundance and thought—this is a lot of me, a lot of my face! I hope people aren’t sick and tired of looking at my face, because I know I was!
Dee Rees: The camera language is intended to heighten the characterization. It starts out very tight and then gets wider and wider. We also shot a lot of profile and silhouette but as the film goes on it becomes more frontal. We wanted to help the audience understand where she is.
PW: Since the film is semi-autobiographical, was there a temptation to just play your director?
AO: No, not at all. It’s based on Dee’s experiences, superimposed onto a teenager. But people did ask us if we were sisters!
DR: I didn’t come out until I was 27. I had crushes on women, but I dismissed them. I actually dated a guy through most of college. It wasn’t until I was living independently that I fell in love with someone, and then it was undeniable. But when I first went to the lesbian clubs, there’s the people in the hats and the baggy jeans and there’s the girls in the skirts. I’m neither one of those. Where do I fit? I wanted to explore that.
PW: The teens in this film seem so comfortable with their gay peers, and conflict only arises when older people refuse to accept them. Do you think it’s easier for this generation to come out, at least amongst themselves?
DR: I think it all depends on who you are and where you’re from. I’m from Nashville Tenn., where it’s still not totally cool. When I moved to Brooklyn was the first time I ever saw out teenagers on the street, talking about girls. I was like: “Oh my God!”
AO: I feel that in someplace like New York City, where I’m from, it may look easier because there are places you can go. But in terms of the dynamics in their families, I don’t think it’s any easier. You can leave your home and find a place for yourself, but you still can’t be yourself at home.
DR: There’s a fragmenting of identity, where you are constantly being asked to leave a part of yourself behind. You’re either leaving your queerness behind or leaving your blackness behind as you move between worlds.
PW: Have you brought the film home to Nashville yet?
DR: Not yet.
PW: Are you looking forward to it?
DR: I guess. Nashville’s like the buckle of the Bible belt, so we’ll see how it goes.
AO: At Sundance we had six screenings, and I’d say mostly the audiences were straight and white. But the response was really cool.
DR: People who are not necessarily from the demographic represented in the film are seeing it and loving it. I remember at Sundance a straight white guy came up to us and said: “I’m not gay. I don’t like gay movies. But I like your movie.” I think it transcends race and sexuality because it’s about identity.
AO: The beauty of the film is that it’s a very specific story, told from the perspective of a young black woman in New York City. But you don’t have to be any of those to relate to the film. In the journey from Sundance to now, we’ve been meeting all kinds of people of all ages who are taking something different from it. People have been very sharing with their experiences and why they relate to the film. It’s nice to be a part of something like that.