As the last movie preview flickered out of focus, I stared at the empty seat beside me and had a fleeting thought: How could I watch Pariah on opening night in New York City and not invite Audre Lorde to watch it with me? Surely, as far as films go, Pariahwhich chronicles the coming of age of a black lesbian teenager in Brooklyn, is a sister (or perhaps daughter) of Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.
Fortunately, Dee Rees, the film’s writer and director, decided to invite Lorde to the showing anyway; before we even see Alike, the film’s protagonist, we see a sentence from Zami: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.”
“Finally,” I heard one woman whisper to her friend. Yes, finally. Not because we were an impatient audience, but because waiting to see a young woman like Alike brought to life on screen has required a patience tantamount to the slow walk of trees.
If recent film history is any indication, the only way a gay character can make it out of the indie ghetto and into major theater showings is as the body of a conflicted gay white male (who will be brutally punished for being gay at some point in the film) or as a laughing, sassy gay sidekick (who is punished implicitly in the film by having no life, desires, or purpose beyond his relation to the main character’s relationship and fashion problems.) Even more rare are successful films that give breath to lesbian characters. To say nothing of young lesbians of color, but especially when threatened with erasure, silence will not save us. So, we go the theater again and again, cynical yes, but with just a bit of hope stored for safekeeping, thinking “Maybe this time they’ll get it right.”
Minutes into the first scene, as Alike struggles to feign ease at a lesbian nightclub while watching her more experienced friend Laura slow dance with a knockout femme, I practically exhaled. Seeing Alike change into more feminine clothes on the bus after leaving a lesbian nightclub so as to assuage her mother; Seeing Laura, who has already been abandoned by her family, let a homeless teenager spend the night on the couch while she studies for her GED; Seeing Alike read a poem in which she declares that “even breaking / is opening.”
The irony, of course, is that Pariah is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale. The pathos is one of hard-earned familiarity. As Lorde would say, “There are no new pains. We have felt them all.” Even still, to see those growing pains honored is a radical offering. It is frustrating, of course, that doing so is big news, but the power of seeing even part of one’s own life reflected on screen cannot be underestimated.
Pariah is preceded by twenty years of lesbian filmmaking. Films by Cheryle Dunye, Aishah Shahidah, Simmons and Michelle Parkerson among others come to mind, but Hollywood has proven that it literally would rather make another big budget film about black maids than about real black women, much less queer black women. What a feeling then to see Alike’s projected face looking out into a packed movie theater while Audre Lorde looks on and whispers “because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”