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In 'Pariah,' High Stakes Of Being Gay Black Teens

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The drama Pariah, which generated lots of buzz at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and opens in select U.S. theaters Wednesday, is about coming-of-age, falling in love, and embracing one's identity. Pariah follows a 17-year-old African-American lesbian named Alike (pronounced "uh-LEE-kay") as she navigates her complex relationships at school and at home.

Director Dee Rees tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin that the film is semi-autobiographical: "Alike knows that she loves women — that's not the question. The question is 'how to be?' And so, in my own struggle, a large part of my question was how to be in the world."

Rees wrote the first draft of the feature script in the summer of 2005, around the time she herself was coming out.

Rees says she found the star of her film, Adepero Oduye, on the first day of auditions: "She had on her little brother's clothes, and she was just already in the zone." (Oduye's character Alike experiments with dress as she's trying to discover 'how to be.')

But Oduye was not vying for the lead role — she just wanted to participate as an extra. So the offer to play Alike came as a surprise and a thrill.

"I remember being very excited," Oduye says. "And when I read the script, I immediately related to that idea of not feeling free, just kind of feeling kind of held back by your circumstances, conditioning, all of that stuff."

Alike And Her Family

Oduye says that playing Alike required her to be very vulnerable and open: "As you kind of grow up in life, as an adult, you learn to kind of cover all that up. So as an actor, it's a pretty exhausting task to constantly do that. And it was a very nurturing environment Dee set up. So I was able to continually go to certain places that are just super uncomfortable and super painful."

Rees adds, "When we first made Alike, we're kind of thrust into this world — this kind of hyper-sexualized environment [club]. We see this woman who's kind of a chameleon, she's painted by the light around her. And then we see her in the next scene on a bus, transforming into something else that she's not."

Alike's parents each react very differently when they learn that she is a lesbian. The couple is also struggling with their own marriage and personal happiness. Rees explains that Alike's father Arthur, played by Charles Parnell, wanted to be a doctor but ended up being a police officer. And Alike's mother Audrey, played by Kim Wayans, is unable to achieve the picture-perfect family for which she strove so hard.

Timing

Pariah is making its theatrical debut as news reports show young gay people committing suicide because they do not feel accepted.

"The timing was perfect," says Rees. "It's funny because we didn't plan for it to take this long ... and if you had asked us a couple years ago, 'would we [have] wanted the film done and out?' we would've told you 'yes,' but I think the film has gotten better because of the process. And now also, the timing has worked out, because there is this awareness about bullying and some of the other things that are going on."

Rees says Alike turns out fine in the end, but some of the other characters' experiences show how high the stakes of homosexuality are. For example, Alike's close friend Laura, played by Pernell Walker, gets put out by her mother for being a lesbian. And some of Laura's gay friends do not have a place to sleep at night.

Spike Lee As Executive Producer And Mentor

Rees first met filmmaker Spike Lee when she was a student at New York University's graduate film school.

"He teaches master classes, so anyone who's in his class can sign up for weekly advisement sessions, so I would sign up every single week," says Rees.

Lee gave Rees feedback on the Pariah script, cuts and video edits.

Michel Martin notes that critics, particularly female critics, have not always felt that Spike Lee understood women, so it was interesting to see him associated with Pariah, which is very much a female-focused film.

"Yeah, and it was interesting for me, like interning for him, like seeing how many black gay people work for him — so there's this perception, but there's this reality of who he employs. And so I have respect for his actions. I think they speak louder than the perceptions," says Rees.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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