- Pariah and Black Independent Cinema TodayA Roundtable Discussion
My first contribution as editor of Moving Image Review is a roundtable discussion sparked by the conversation in the United States surrounding the theatrical release of Dee Rees’s 2011 film Pariah. Organized as a session at the American Studies Association’s annual convention in 2012, the following is an edited transcript of what was presented there. Out of an interest in centering queer media making and scholarship within the broader sociocultural contexts to which they contribute, I asked the scholars included here (some of whom also are filmmakers, archivists, or curators) to assess, situate, and discuss the current state of black film culture in the United States, with a particular focus on what Nelson George identified in a December 23, 2011, feature article in the New York Times about the black lesbian film Pariah as a “mini-movement of young black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what ‘black film’ can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.”1
An engaged audience at the American Studies Association session contributed to a discussion that generated additional insights and questions not included here. These were primarily about audience, alternative production streams and distribution models, and the issues of class and the existence of subcultures that might be considered part of this discussion. I am grateful to Alex Juhasz and Ming-Yuen Ma, the former editors of Moving Image Review, for allowing me to participate [End Page 423] in the production of the Queer Media Manifestos as a way to learn how to produce the Moving Image Review.
I first encountered Pariah in 2007 as a short film that won the Audience Award at OutFest, Los Angeles’s LGBT film festival. Since then, Pariah has been produced as a feature film distributed by Focus Features. The narrative differences and casting changes made between Pariah the short and Pariah the feature are indicative of industry demands for name recognition and universal appeal in this capital-generating artistic venture. Of all the groundbreaking things a short film can accomplish, making money is usually not one of them. While I do understand the need to meet the demand of universal appeal, the poignancy and vulnerability captured in the short keeps that version of Pariah near and dear to my heart.
That said, Pariah the feature, because of its presence in theaters across the country, has been able to open up conversations about the tensions between blackness and sexuality on a much wider scale than the short film version could. Pariah’s representation of the black family raises questions about being black and gay and belonging. Alike, the black lesbian daughter in Pariah, tests her belonging to a normatively religious, socially conservative, middle-class black family, and, more broadly, her sexuality challenges this normatively religious, socially conservative, middle-class black family’s belonging in the nation that persistently challenges its inclusion.2 The tensions that surround the tenuous national belonging for black families and the stakes of compulsorily black heterosexuality produce a dissonance that is palpable in Pariah’s narrative. An element of the ambivalence that circulates through blackness is the specter of pathological sexuality. Religiosity and the black church have served as vectors through which the taint of sexual deviancy becomes absolved. In her book Private Lives, Proper Relations, Candice Jenkins describes the salvific wish and uplift ideology as a pledge for salvation from the pathologizing discourse of black sexuality.3 Jenkins argues that ideologies of upward mobility and the salvific wish encourage silence and denial about sexuality. The violence of the salvific wish that separates Alike from her parents is visualized in Pariah in a cinematic eruption that lays open the sorrow and the stakes of not belonging and not being willing or able to help it.
When Alike admits to her parents that she’s gay, the tenuousness of her family’s national belonging rocks them and their place in the black church, and blackness is thrown into question. The understanding that blackness and queerness [End Page 424] are mutually exclusive is a problem of...