Laura Essay Movie

First Love? In Bina (Aasha Davis, left), Alike (Adepero Oduye) finds a focus for the feelings she'd been coming to terms with privately. Focus Features hide caption

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Focus Features

From its opening scenes, Pariah, a vital first feature worked up from a short film by director Dee Rees, draws you into a world largely untapped in American black cinema. The setting is a nightclub where AG's — "Aggressive Lesbians," members of a subculture marginalized within their own black community, let alone the rest of the world — can frolic with joy and humor, acting out a raucous, good-natured belligerence denied them in their everyday lives.

Yet the movie is anything but combative. Pariah is a tender, sporadically goofy, yet candid examination of emergent identity, a film whose lack of attitude sets it apart from much of the hard-bitten, thug-life storytelling that's dominated African-American cinema for decades. If anything, its source genre is the coming-of-age movie, and though the universe its freshly hatched lesbian inhabits is all black, Rees is blessedly unwilling to confine herself in any kind of ghetto, whether racial, sexual or aesthetic.

Beautifully played by Adepero Oduye, the movie's heroine, Alike (Ah-lee-kay), is a shy, open-faced teenager, a straight-A student and aspiring poet from a stable family. Though she has no doubt about her sexual orientation, Alike has yet to explore her identity, never mind come out to her folks. She feels closer to her father (Charles Parnell), a handsome police detective, than to her overprotective mother (Kim Wayans). Distracted by their own floundering marriage and by a barely articulated homophobia, both parents seem determined not to know what they undoubtedly do.

The only port in the quiet storm of Alike's life is her best friend, Laura (a very good Pernell Walker), who is out to the world and getting on with life as best she can, given that her own mother has frozen her out for good. Unsure that Laura's AG crowd is for her, Alike fumbles her way into a romantic encounter with vivacious, seemingly assured Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of her mother's colleague.

Like most earnest newcomers to love and sex, Alike may be expecting more than the night can deliver. I can't tell you whether her tryst with Bina is love or a hookup, but it's accomplished with such delicate eros that it seems like a benediction any parent might wish for their child.

Rees is an NYU film-school alumna and a protege of Spike Lee, who's one of the film's executive producers, and Pariah is as fresh in its theme and execution as Lee's 1986 first feature, She's Gotta Have It. Meanwhile, the striking palette, shot in Brooklyn in gorgeous deep reds and blues by the talented cinematographer Bradford Young, surely draws inspiration from Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing.

Yet the movie's expressionist lyricism and wistful mood recall Charles Burnett's 1979 masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, while the hypnotically incantatory dialogue and sympathetic focus on a family saddled with unexpressed anger and sorrow carry echoes of Burnett's quiet 1990 domestic drama To Sleep With Anger.

A hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Pariah is the finest coming-of-age movie I've seen in years, the work of a fledgling artist who fully deserves the support she received from the Sundance Institute and other indie promoters of a new generation of black filmmakers.

Yet it's worrying that Rees' distributor, Focus Features, is trying to position the film as a long-shot Oscar winner. Rees needs time and space to grow her abundant talent slowly, and instant fame has rarely been good for a filmmaker as contemplative as she is. Announcing an important decision to her chastened father, Alike tells him quietly, "I'm not running — I'm choosing." Sounds like a plan.(Recommended)


  • Director: Dee Rees
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 86 minutes

Rated R for sexual content, language

With: Adepero Oduye, Charles Parnell, Kim Wayans, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis


Laura Horak

Assistant Professor, Film Studies; cross-appointed with Women’s & Gender Studies; Undergraduate Supervisor; Practicum & Internship Coordinator

Laura Horak investigates gender and sexuality in film and media, transgender and queer cinema, and American and Scandinavian film history. She teaches courses on film theory, historiography, and methodology; cinema, gender, and sexuality; women directors; the history of sex in American cinema; and passing and masquerade in cinema.

Horak is cross-appointed to the Pauline Jewett Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies and the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture (ICSLAC). She is also on the Sexuality Studies Committee in the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Her book, Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema 1908-1934 (Rutgers UP, 2016), uses archival research to overturn long-standing assumptions about gender and sexuality in American film history. It was chosen as one of the Huffington Post’s Top Film Books of 2016 and a 2016 Choice Outstanding Academic Title. Read Horak’s interview about the book in Film Quarterly or listen to her discuss it with Susie Bright.

Horak’s anthology, Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (Indiana University Press, 2014), co-edited with Jennifer Bean and Anupama Kapse, won the 2015 Society of Cinema and Media Studies’ Award for Best Edited Collection.

She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Cinema’s Oscar Wilde: Mauritz Stiller and the Production of Modern Sexuality (under contract with Rutgers UP). It investigates the ways that cinema participated in the Swedish project of modernizing sexuality via a case study the gay, Jewish, Finnish-Swedish director Mauritz Stiller.

Horak is also co-editing an anthology called Unwatchable (also under contract with Rutgers) with Nicholas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, and Gunnar Iversen. The book assembles short essays from 60 scholars, filmmakers, and cultural critics, including W.J.T. Mitchell, Vivian Sobchack, and Jonathan Crary. In addition, she is co-editing a special journal issue of Somatechnics (Edinburgh UP) with Cáel Keegan and Eliza Steinbock on the topic of “Cinematic Bodies,” with a focus on trans cinematic authorship and representation.

In July 2017, Horak received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for her new project, “Imagining Transgender: Trans and Gender Variant Filmmaking in the United States and Canada.” Through interviews and archival research, she is investigating how films made by trans and gender-variant people have helped bring new communities and identity categories into being.

Recent publications include:

“Tracing the History of Trans and Gender Variant Filmmakers.” Special issue on Transgender Media. Spectator: The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television Criticism 37, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 9-20. 11 pp.

Sense8 Roundtable.” Co-written with Roxanne Samer. With Moya Bailey, micha cárdenas, Lokeilani Kaimana, Cáel M. Keegan, Geneveive Newman, Roxanne Samer, and Raffi Sarkissian. Special issue on Transgender Media. Spectator: The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television Criticism 37, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 74-88.

“Cross-Dressing and Transgender Representation in Swedish Cinema, 1908-2017.” European Journal of Scandinavian Studies. Accepted, in press, forthcoming October 2017.

“Using Digital Maps to Investigate Cinema History.” In The Arclight Guide to Media History and the Digital Humanities, edited by Charles Acland and Eric Hoyt, 65-102. Falmer: REFRAME/Project Arclight (2016). 38 pp.

“The Global Distribution of Swedish Silent Film.” In A Companion to Nordic Cinema, edited by Mette Hjort and Ursula Lindqvist, 457-484. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, March 2016. 28 pp.

“Trans on YouTube: Intimacy, Visibility, Temporality.” Special issue on Trans Cultural Production. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1, no. 4 (December 2014): 572-585. 14 pp.

“Sex, Politics, and Swedish Silent Film: Mauritz Stiller’s Feminism Comedies of the 1910s.”Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 4, no. 3 (September 2014): 193-208. 16 pp.

Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space. Co-edited with Jennifer Bean and Anupama Kapse. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. 360 pp.

“Queer Crossings: Greta Garbo, National Identity, and Gender Deviance.” In Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space, edited by Jennifer Bean, Laura Horak, and Anupama Kapse, 270-294. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. 25 pp.

“Swedish cinema’s use of the Bechdel test is a provocation that works.” Co-written with Anu Koivunen and Ingrid Ryberg. The Guardian. November 27, 2013.

“The Female Boy on the Frontier: The Strange Case of Billy and His Pal (1911).” Cinema Journal Afterthoughts and Postscripts 52, no.4 (Fall 2013)

“Landscape, Vitality, and Desire: Cross-Dressed Frontier Girls in Transitional-Era American Cinema.” Cinema Journal 52, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 74-98. 24 pp.

“‘Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn?’: Film as a Vehicle of Sensual Education.”Camera Obscura 25, no. 2 74 (2010): 75-117. 42 pp.

“Osa Johnson.” In Women Film Pioneers Project, edited by Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

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