Director Dee Rees is streetwise, smart, and hot.
Dee Rees is hot. Her debut feature Pariah, about an African-American high school-age lesbian coming out in middle-class Brooklyn, carried some of the greatest buzz out of this year’s Sundance Festival. Executive produced by Spike Lee, Pariah shares DNA with Lee’s own first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, in being a crackling smart, streetwise account of a young heroine coming of age surrounded by strong-willed, combative personalities, but who is ultimately able to blaze her own true path.
In person, Nashville native Dee Rees is down to earth and eager to describe the six-year journey her autobiographical tale underwent as it progressed from a promising first script to polishing at Sundance Labs. Rees explains how much she appreciated the veteran writers who helped her fine-tune her story.
"I got to meet [African-American mystery writer] Walter Mosley, who’s like my idol. I remember in the director’s lab one of the most salient pieces of advice I got was from Walter Bernstein [writer on the Woody Allen blacklisting drama The Front], who kept asking, ’What is this about?’ I said, ’It’s about identity,’ and he probed, ’No, what it’s about?’ I said, ’It’s about family and relationships,’ and he said, ’No, it’s about a girl who needs to get laid!’ I had never thought of it like that. The next pass-through of the script, I thought, ’This women is a virgin, and the consummation of her identity is very much a part of this journey she’s going on.’ Going to the meeting I thought, ’This is a man who will never understand this script,’ and he totally got it and was extremely helpful."
In her script that manages to be both polished yet emotionally raw, Rees plants an African-American baby butch (newcomer Adepero Oduye) in limbo between a hot dyke Brooklyn club scene and the cell phone tether of her conservative parents. We first see 17-year-old Alike doing her quick-change act on an MTA bus before confronting Mom.
"Where have you been?"
"At the movies."
"The movies are over by midnight. Your curfew is 12:30."
"Sorry, I just lost track of time."
"I don’t much care for the girl you’re running around with."
"Look, I’m not your husband, your companion, or your best friend. I’m your daughter, so butt out!"
Rees provides saucy plotlines, including Alike’s complex but positive relationship with her NYPD detective Dad, and the irony that Mom, trying her best to end Alike’s "tomboy" phase, actually steers her towards a hot overnighter with a church lady’s daughter.
David Lamble: Where did you find your young lead?
Dee Rees: Adepere Oduye is from Brooklyn. She walked into auditions on the first day and blew it away. In life she’s very extroverted and outgoing, but inside she had this vulnerability. She knows what it’s like to feel like you’re not quite fitting in, and she brought that. She’s very expressive and beautiful, that draws us in to what she’s really feeling, because Alike thinks a lot of things that she doesn’t say.
David Lamble: In a small cast of characters you have some distinctive voices. The mom (Audrey, played by Kim Wayans) is the most problematic, which gives you some incendiary mother/daughter dialogues.
Dee Rees: Everyone in the film is flawed, but Audrey’s flawed in a way that the very things she tries to avoid she brings about. The more she tries to connect, she pushes people away. She can’t control her husband, but she can control her daughter. In the effort to connect she actually alienates and starts to feel like a pariah herself.
Pushing Alike towards her identity
David Lamble: Inadvertently she connects Alike up with her first date.
Dee Rees: She’s trying to correct Alike and have her not have homosexual experience, but by making her hang out with the girl from their church, she brings it about. She thinks that Laura is a bad influence, but dragging Alike from Laura just pushes Alike along the path of her own identity.
David Lamble: Anyone coming from an emotionally abused background expects that violence in the family is going to come from the father. You confound our expectations with that electric scene where Audrey strikes her daughter.
Dee Rees: The more I got to know Arthur, I realized he would never be capable of this. Audrey’s the one who’s being ignored, so she’s the one who’s kind of building steam. The Sundance directors’ lab was the last place I shot the scene where the father committed the violence.
David Lamble: Brooklyn is a great setting.
Dee Rees: In New York you never feel alone, the city itself is your date, and Brooklyn was the first place I had seen these out teenagers who already knew at 17, and weren’t afraid to be that. "They’re 17 and they’re out, and I’m 27, and why am I afraid to come out?"
David Lamble: You embed the story in a believable Brooklyn middle-class African-American family.
Dee Rees: Part of Audrey’s problem with Laura is her belief that she’s below them in class.
David Lamble: Also, the dad’s a narcotics detective, he works insane hours, and he’s fudging what he’s actually doing sometimes.
Dee Rees: He knows what’s going on, and he and Alike have that kind of unspoken agreement to keep each other’s secrets.
David Lamble: The cherry on the sundae is having Spike Lee as your executive producer.
Dee Rees: I interned with him on When the Levees Broke. He was really generous with his time, very open and candid.
Pariah opens in Boston on Friday, Jan. 6 at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge. For more information about the film, please visit www.focusfeatures.com/pariah .
This story was originally published in the Bay Area Reporter and is reprinted here with permission.