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Brandon Judell

Pariah: Extremely Lesbian and Incredibly Butch



Dee Rees' debut feature, "Pariah," an extension of her prize-winning short film, begins with an Audre Lorde quote: " Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." Well, with the given title and that opening allusion, you might assume you're going to be bathed in an hour and a half of unending despair. WRONG! Instead, get ready for some tender moxie.

Like last year's sensational "Gun Hill Road," a tale of a father released from prison who discovers his son is on the way to womanhood, "Pariah" also explores "otherness." This time the divergence from heteronormativity is that of a young black woman and her acceptance of her lesbianism—and a "butch" lesbianism it is.

The heroine is 17-year-old Brooklynite Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), who when we meet her is attending an all-girls club, the Catnip Lounge. The tune playing as the camera searches for our heroine is Khia's "My Neck, My Back":

"All you ladies shake your pussy like this
Shake your body, don't stop, don't miss
All you ladies shake your pussy like this
Shake your body, don't stop, don't miss
Just do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now
Do it good, lick this pussy just like you should, just like you should
right now, lick it good
Suck this pussy just like you should
My Neck, my back
Lick my pussy and my crack."

A Sapphic national anthem if there ever was one.

Suddenly, a female stripper slides down a pole and stalks towards Alike (Adepero Oduye), who's donning a baseball cap and a shapeless men's shirt. The dancer's looking to get some dollars placed in her panties. Alike shies away, while her butcher, more boisterous, best pal Laura (Pernell Walker) waves some dollar bills.

Stripper: Oh, come on, baby. I'm not going to bite.

Alike isn't taking any chances. Outside the club we find out why when Laura teases: "I get more pussy than yo daddy, nigga . . . . You need to pop that damn cherry, yo."

Alike's problem, if it can be considered one, is that's she's a virgin looking for a loving girlfriend. True, painless love in 2011? Is it even possible?

Once she's alone on a bus heading towards her Fort Greene neighborhood, Alike contemplates her situation while she's slipping off her guy gear and putting on her earrings and femming it up before she gets home. Why?

You see her Mom's homophobic, her dad's cheating, and her little sister's an annoying tease. Consequently, Alike's whole world is closeted. She doesn't even feel overly comfortable broadcasting how bright she is. So does the girl have any hope?

Not at first. We just sit there helplessly as the innocent Alike survives straight girls playing gay-curious, parental terrorism, and the unending pain of not seemingly fitting in anywhere. However, Alike will come up on top in the end, and her journey is one of the best celluloid jaunts this year. Sensationally acted by Oduye, Walker, plus the rest of the cast, with a sterling screenplay and direction by Reese, and top-notch technical turns by cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Mako Kamitsuna, "Pariah" turns out be a joyous, inspirational film that is inarguably a "must see" for all.

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