Dee Rees’ Groundbreaking Pariah: LGBTQ+ Favorites for Focus Features' 20th Anniversary

The story of queer Brooklyn teenager reframed how cinema could deal with race and sexuality

In 2021, IndieWire wrote, “Ten years ago, filmmaker Dee Rees changed the game for queer filmmaking with her stunning semi-autobiographical debut feature, Pariah.” What made this intimate portrait of a Brooklyn teenager, Alike (Adepero Oduye), so significant was the unique way it both embraced and confounded perceived ideas about gender, race, and sexuality. Reaching beyond the coming out genre, Rees explored how young people of color could transcend traditional identities to emerge as something new. In her poetry, Alike writes, “I am not running, I am choosing…I am not broken, I am free.” To celebrate Focus Features' 20th year anniversary as well as Pride Month this June, we are showcasing remarkable filmmakers who have reframed LGBTQ+ experiences.

Watch Pariah now on iTunes or Amazon

The original trailer for Pariah

Writer/director Dee Rees on the set of Pariah 

Like her character, Alike, Rees’ journey to find her own identity and become a filmmaker was a long, complex process. Rees originally obtained an MBA and spent more than a decade crafting corporate marketing campaigns before she made a drastic about turn to become a filmmaker. “The moment I left corporate America and went to film school, that was me being me,” Rees relates. After getting accepted at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and being mentored by Spike Lee, Rees began to find her voice and vision. “I made Pariah to portray images on screen that we hadn’t seen before,” explains Rees. While she embraced her sexuality later in life and grew up in Nashville, she intuitively understood teens in Brooklyn. “For me, personally, that’s the same story I faced,” Rees remembers.” I definitely had to be strong emotionally and be firm in who I was.”

Pariah, however, was not simply a coming out story for Alike. “She knows that she loves women. That’s not the question,” explains Rees. “Her question is how to be in the world.” As an African American, lesbian, teen poet growing up in Brooklyn, Alike learns how to balance the demands of her many identities. As a filmmaker, Rees knew that to tell Alike’s story authentically she needed to bring Alike’s life, family, and world into focus as well. Pariah not only “avoids all the usual clichés,” explains The Wrap, but provides “a moving story that’s told with intelligence, heart and a working knowledge of the real world we live in.”

Alike (Adepero Oduye) in Pariah

Since it came out, Pariah has highlighted the complexity of its characters and the worlds they come from.The New York Times notes that the film “is important, not simply as a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of … young black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what 'black film' can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.” For Alike, discovering her identity became the work of embracing all aspects of her life, not just her desire, nor her history. By so doing, Rees shone a light for future filmmakers on what was missing from most gay and African American cinema. “Pariah leaves you aching, not only because of the story it tells, but because it whispers softly of all the stories that haven’t been told,” Mother Jones poignantly reminds us.