Friday, November 9, 2012

Women in Film: PARIAH

I am fascinated when a performer, known primarily for comedy, plays the other side of the coin with stimulating results.  My top examples are Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Jamie Foxx and Mo'Nique.  All were known to millions of television viewers as sitcom stars.  They won their Academy  Awards for dramatic work.  Last month, I saw a 2011 indie film called Pariah.  It's the story of a social outcast -- a young African-American lesbian struggling to be herself in society, struggling to distinguish herself in school and struggling for total acceptance at home from her working class parents in Brooklyn. Wow.  What a strong, gritty yet tender film.  I wanted to see it because it was praised by Meryl Streep during a live interview on an entertainment news show telecast early this year the night she won her Best Actress Oscar for The Iron Lady.  Streep said that, just as the field for Best Picture nominees was increased back to ten (the original number for Best Picture nominees until it was reduced to five in the 1940s), there could have been ten nominees for Best Actress of 2011.  She mentioned Pariah.  
If you laughed for years at the comic fabulousness of Kim Wayans as a member of TV's In Living Color sketch comedy cast, you need to experience the dramatic home run she hits as the heartbroken conservative Christian wife and mother in Pariah.  Her performance is a revelation.  You've got to see it.  Kim Wayans is outstanding.
Adepeno Oduye plays her conflicted, secretive daughter.  Aliké is a good student, a very introspective teen.  As the story of a young lesbian, Pariah doesn't have a now-legendary physical makeover and tragedy of a Boys Don't Cry.  As the story of an African-American female teen outcast, it doesn't have a shocking monster mother like Precious did. This may feel more mainstream and quieter in tone, which is what sets it apart.  You feel like you know these ordinary people.  You've had them as friends, neighbors or relatives.  Maybe you've been them.  I felt like Kim Wayan's Audrey was a woman who lived on my block when I was a youngster.  She has an office job. Her husband is so busy working -- even on Sundays -- that his time for her and the kids and church is limited.  But they manage to have dinner together.  They argue, but they do have dinner together.
Audrey is disappointed by and confined by her own expectations.  She makes you feel that, as hard as she and her husband work and as skilled as they are, they should have a more comfortable, smoother life.  Like the Huxtables on Bill Cosby's classic sitcom.  They've got two good girls who are serious about their schoolwork.  Audrey doesn't want to be rich.  She's not after material goods.  She would like to be in a photo as an example of the Happy Upscale Black Christian Family.  Deep-down, the parents really know they have one daughter who's a lesbian.  They pretend not to know.  Dad seems to be more accepting about it.  He's protective of Aliké.  But Audrey is angry at her own gut-feelings.  She can believe that Jesus walked on water, cured a leper and resurrected from the dead.  But she cannot believe that her daughter likes butch girls.  That casts a shadow in the family, a shadow matched by the lighting.  It seems like Audrey, very concerned with appearances and the way her family will be seen, needs to turn on more light.
The shadow -- the hurt and disappointment -- is always right behind Audrey's eyes in Wayans' portrayal.  Basically, she's a good woman.  She could be happy if she just got out of her own way.  Does she realize that she makes her daughter feel like a pariah?
The Aliké friendship with a schoolmate (played by Aasha Davis) seems like a high school version of Celie and Shug's friendship in The Color Purple at the beginning.  This film is way more sexually direct and honest than Spielberg's movie in that regard.
Adepeno Oduye gives such a natural, frank and moving performance.  Many recently saw her in the Lifetime remake of the hit movie, Steel Magnolias.  She got her hands on the hair of TV's Claire Huxtable, actress Phylicia Rashad formerly of The Cosby Show.
Oduye recreated the Christian hairdresser role done in the 1989 film by Daryl Hannah.
Another strong performance comes from Charles Parnell as the over-worked loving father who's grown weary of Audrey's inability to let it be.  And her Bible's become a sexual depressant for Arthur.  He realizes what Audrey won't -- that society may not be kind to their lesbian daughter.  That their own people, African-Americans, may not be kind to their lesbian daughter.  This also affects the emotional atmosphere in the home.
The cast was put through its paces by a young writer and director -- filmmaker Dee Rees.  Big applause to her!  Is Pariah an excellent film like Brokeback Mountain or The Hours?  No.  Is it a good film with excellent performances?  Yes.  If Robert Redford had directed Pariah, critics would've raved that it was his most gripping, most important family film since his Oscar winning Ordinary People.  He'd have gotten lots of press.  I didn't see Dee Rees get lots of entertainment press attention on TV.  She did some exceptional work.
And, once again, the dramatic performance delivered by Kim  Who knew?
Obviously, Ms. Dee Rees did.  Let's keep an eye on this female director.  She made a big impression on Meryl Streep with her film.  That alone is something to be proud of, indeed.

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