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Three white women crowd the ticket window. “What is Pariah?” one asks, flustered. The ticket vender stammers. “It’s, uh, kind of a slice-of-life among kids in Brooklyn.” My partner and I exchange a glance.
It’s the opening night of Pariah, Dee Rees’s resoundingly-well-received debut film, which opened in select theatres on December 28th. The film has been labeled a coming-out film, a women’s coming-of-age missive, and a meditation on African-American identity. But Pariah is more than all this. It’s a story that resists filmic genres, primary “issues,” and gender binaries alike. Rees’s characters are queer and straight and questioning. They are poor and middle-class, from two-parent nuclear families and raising themselves. They slide along gender spectrums unexpectedly and in their own time. Most importantly, they are characters, real, black characters in fraught, complex relationships– something we haven’t seen on mainstream screens in a long time.
The film opens at a black “women’s club,” were burlesque performer Maine Anders (popular among New York’s black queer women community) winds and grinds for a room full of women of color. It is here that we first encounter Alike (Adepero Oduye), who deserves every bit the praise she’s gotten for the role). Alike is the odd-duck out in more ways than one—or even two. She is black and queer and a woman. She is also sweet and shy, and is just beginning to tinker with masculine gender expressions. There to aid her in this process is her best friend Laura (the brilliant Pernell Walker), a thick and ebullient aggressive woman (AG) from the wrong side of the tracks. Disowned by her mother, Laura serves as a symbol of black queer women’s self-made communities, and black lesbian self-making. Between nights out at the club and household economic planning with the sister she lives with, Laura studies to get her GED and mentors Alike in the ways of the black AG, helping her develop what Walker called in my interview with her “the grand swagger” of hip hop masculinity. For Walker, who grew up a tomboy in the South Bronx (and who, it’s worth mentioning, identifies as straight), this hip hop identification is Laura’s “male protective armor,” but it’s also a gateway to her vulnerability—to “that need to be loved, accepted.”
In her quest to develop this swagger and tune it to her own Afro-punk personality, Alike, whose Ibo-derived name translates loosely to “most beautiful woman,” must pass in almost every setting she encounters. One of the film’s most moving scenes shows her on the bus on the way home from the club, replacing her fitted baseball cap with girlish baby door-knocker earrings as Sparlha Swa’s “Doing My Thing” plays in the background. Yet, Alike finds it equally difficult to do “her thing” in Laura’s black dyke enclaves, where her social discomfort becomes hilariously literal as she tries to don the wrong dildo on her first date, leaving her squirming on the sidelines while her date dances with someone else.
The phrase “doing my thing” becomes a motif in the film, repeated by Alike’s friend-turned-first-lover, Bina (Aasha Davis), who insists after their first (and only) sustained sexual encounter: “I’m not like, gay gay! I’m just doing my thing.” Rees repurposes this hip-hop youth mantra to explore black gender across lines of sexuality and generation. Even as Alike’s mother (Kim Wayans), rejects “this tomboy thing [Alike is] doing,” she frames the femininity she imagines for Alike as an explicitly self-defined one, demanding that she groom her hair and lotion her face because “it’s your head; its your skin.” This is echoed by a chorus of (ostensibly straight) black girls as they talk casually about sex in the school hallway. When the conversation turns to aggressive women, one woman declares “some of them AGs are kinda cute… I’m not saying I would, but I’ll holla.” When met with jibes and laughter, she clarifies: “I like girls; I love boys.” This character voices the unsettling ambiguity of cultural receptions of black female masculinity —when asked about Alike, she sighs “if she was just a little bit harder.” Yet the girl (who does eventually date Alike) also expresses a complex attitude toward black queer gender rarely seen onscreen.
And this is what’s so great about Pariah. It complicates black identity not through decontextualized “slices of life” or formulaic “coming-of-age” structures, but through a real, live narrative and characters that are as conflicted as they are complex. To say that “race is not an issue” in Pariah, as one review does, is, of course, a soaring overstatement. But Pariah invites us to think about intricacies of identity that commercial film usually disappears when characters are black. Here, blackness is at play because sexuality, class, and gender are at play. As Laura’s “hip-hop’s swag” suggests, the film throws masculinities and femininities into relief by locating them in a world where blackness, at least temporarily, marks its own borders. Rees takes full advantage of this choice, rendering with gorgeous sincerity Alike’s inner life as she figures out what sexuality and gender mean to her. The film’s most intimate scenes occur not between parents and children, or even between lovers, but between Alike and Laura as masculine-presenting friends fighting to sustain their friendship across class lines, fumbling comically to strap on a harness and a white dildo, sharing a dollar box of ice cream on a rooftop when there’s no other family to be found.
Only once or twice does this intense concentration of emotion threaten Rees’s elegant style: Alike’s well-earned breakdown after a series of romantic and familial rejections may be very slightly overwrought, and while Rees’s staccato visual and sound effects in that scene gesture toward Alike’s internal frenzy, we miss the opportunity to hear her make sense—or fail to make sense—of the pain her communities’ homophobia visits on her. But these moments are minor, rare, and beside the point in this admirable and much needed debut. As black British lesbian filmmaker Campbell X (director of Legacy and Stud Life) put it in my interview with her, Rees is making space for “a new legacy—one in which African Americans are looked at from an insider’s eye and saying: ‘We are human -get over it!’ There is no explanation and no apology.”
This unapologetic humanity is Pariah’s greatest accomplishment. The film resists binaries vehemently, insisting on presenting not just a “slice” of black queer life, but an in-your-face story from a black social world where accepted ideas about gender, sexuality and intimacy don’t hold. Ultimately, Pariah is about what it means to be a black queer woman—and a complex human—determined to “do your thing.” That’s something America’s commercial film culture doesn’t know much about just yet. But Dee Rees damn sure does.
Although only showing in a handful of theaters, Pariah has created significant buzz amongst critics, cultural commentators, and the world of social networking. At one level the interest and celebration reflects the importance of the film as a site of intervention, as evidence of the power and potential of filmmaking. Nelson George, in a recent New York Times article, discussed Pariah in relationship to several other important films (Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Kinyarwanda” and Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky”), arguing that seen together these films are evidence of a resurgence of African American films. Similarly, Salamishah Tillet, in “20 years of Black Lesbian Film” argues that Pariah stands on the shoulders of a long history of black lesbian filmmaking; yet she points to inherent possibilities with this film:
This alone gives a new generation of black lesbian filmmakers, such as Tiona McClodden, director of the 2008 documentary Black/Womyn: Conversations With Lesbians of African Descent, reason to be excited. “After Pariah,” McClodden said in an interview, “it might be a little easier for more of these types of film to be made. I hope it gets even more recognition and award nominations. So far there hasn’t been a show of something that has been commercially successful in this genre, so this is why Pariah is so important.”
It is not the number of films or the heightened visibility, but rather than the effort to reflect on black identity, to examine the intersections of race-class-sexuality-gender, and to otherwise expand the definition of what it means to be black in the twenty-first century. George describes Pariah as “not simply … a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the 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.” Pariah does indeed do all those things and so much more.
Pariah, a semi-autobiographical film from writer and director Dee Rees, tells the story of Alike (played brilliantly by Adepero Oduye), a shy 17-year old girl living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Focusing on sexual exploration, her relationship with friends, and her sense of identity, Pariah is really a story of Alike coming out as a lesbian to her family. With a supportive sister (Sahra Mellesse), a father (Charles Parnell) in denial, and a mother (Kim Wayans) openly uncomfortable with the prospect of her daughter being a lesbian, Pariah gives voice to the difficulty of coming out. The film specifically focuses on the relationship between Alike and her mother, whose religious beliefs and adherence to traditional gender roles (she demands that Alike wear more feminine clothes) ground her contempt for Alike’s sexuality. Whereas so much of popular discourse depicts homophobia as unique to the black community, Pariah locates it within the confines of religious conservatism.
Giving voice to the hegemonically erased experiences of the black middle-class, black female youth, and black lesbians, Pariah refuses the trap of the politics of invisibility. It refuses to reduce identity to simple signifiers, yet its deployment of hair politics, its use of the landscape of Brooklyn, its representation of spoken word artistry elucidate the powerful way that black identity matters. A film of subtlety and brilliant acting performances, Pariah offers a counternarrative and a level of complexity to the politics of representation uncommon within mainstream popular culture.
In exploring the dialectics between race, class, gender, and sexuality, Pariah examines the depths of “Otherness.” The film begins with a definition of a pariah, as “a person without status. A rejected member of society. An outcast.” Alike navigates many different worlds, seemingly unable to meet the demands and expectations of society and its members. At home, her sexuality and her gendered identity (her clothing choices) conflict with the demands and expectations of her parents. At the club, her lack of aggressiveness and her perceived limited confidence, positions her outside of peers. At school, she sits alone, as the “popular” girls gossip about both the boys and the “AGs” – the aggressive girls.
“The two worlds that ‘Pariah’ visits might as well be parallel universes, although they are within blocks of each other,” writes Stephen Holden in his New York Times review. “The raunchy women’s dance club to which Alike is drawn has nothing in common with her pious household, where a stiff, artificial cheer and tense formality pass for familial togetherness. Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life between the two while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” Yet, Alike is of course not the only pariah within the film.
Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike’s best friend, lives with her sister because she was kicked out of her house presumably because of her mom’s homophobia. Even Alike’s mom, whose pious and conservative demeanor renders her as an outsider, as alienated from her daughter, her husband, and her peers at work, is somewhat of a pariah. Summer M, at Black Youth Project, argues in fact that Audrey continues the historic representations of black mothers as “cold, irrational, and incapable of unconditional love.” Yet, in imagining her through a lens of middle-class and Christian respectability, and providing her with some depth, the film constructs Audrey as a different sort of pariah.
While a story of “simplicity,” Pariah offers a complex representation of identity. Evident in the narrative and in Alike’s recitation of her spoken word poetry, Pariah represents her as a trapped butterfly; her beautiful identity is confined by the demands that she behave and act in accordance with identity of a young, middle-class, heterosexual black woman. In one of the more powerful scenes from the film, Alike announces: “Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise. For even breaking is opening. I am broken. I am open. See the love shine in through my cracks. See the light shine out through me. My spirit takes journey. My spirit takes flight. And I am not running. I am choosing.” In other words, like a butterfly, Alike chooses to break free from the confines of her parents’ expectations, the homophobia of society, and even the requirements for acceptance within middle-class religious communities. She refuses their definition of the politics of respectability just as Dee Rees refuses the systemic erasure of black lesbian youth from the mainstream. Choosing her own path, her own flight, Alike’s beauty shines through with clarity and inspiration. Emphasizing her power and agency, Pariah represents Alike and her sense of identity as beautiful.
One of the most interesting and telling aspects of Pariah is the ways it uses music. Including a range of artists, from Khia, Daisha, and Kandi Cole to Honeychild Coleman, Audio Dyslexia, and Tamar-Khali. The efforts to highlight “underground” female artists reflect the efforts of the movie to make visible those experiences, voices, and identities that are ubiquitously rendered invisible. Yet, the music selection is telling in other ways, as the film disentangles black contemporary identity from hip-hop, arguing that black identity and artistic contributions include, but are not limited by hip-hop. The film includes Afro-Punk artists, those who embody a rock aesthetic, and a more R&B sound. The hegemonic inscription of black identity through mainstream rap music reflects the narrow constructions of blackness, the systemic definition of blackness through narrow notions of authenticity. The film explores and explodes this in both its musical choice and its narrative direction. In one scene, Alike and Bina (Aasha Davis) listen and discuss music; Alike is shocked that her presumably “normal” and “mainstream” friend listens to rock music. The efforts to disentangle social location (class, race, and identity) from music are emblematic of the larger purpose of the film, one that disrupts notions of authenticity.
Pariah leaves much unsaid. While clearly part of the overall effort is to focus the story on Alike and give voice to her identity formation, it challenges the belief that the viewers are entitled to every piece of information. Viewers are made to believe that Arthur is having an affair; it also hints at conflict between his relationship and Audrey stemming from past choices. Similarly, viewers are never told why Laura leaves home or the relationship between Laura’s sister and her mother. We know very little here, not so much because it is not important or illustrative to the story or character development, but because it is information that viewers are not entitled to know. It points to the power of the film, one that leads viewers to see and experience, yet doesn’t give audiences full-access defined by spectacle and the powerful gaze of the audience.
In contemporary America, black lesbian youth are so often imagined as pariahs, positioned as outsiders and Others in a myriad of context, including the Hollywood imagination. It provides depth and inhumanity so often reserved for whiteness. Described brilliantly by Summer M, “Pariah is an incredibly rich film that explodes caricatures of blackness and sexuality through its commitment to expressing the humanity underneath those identity markers.” With its powerful story, amazing acting, and beautiful cinematography, Pariah challenges the systemic erasure and dehumanization commonplace to society.
by Jamilah King
There’s a scene in Dee Rees’s debut feature film “Pariah” to which almost anyone who’s survived an awkward adolescence can relate. Alike, the film’s 17-year-old protagonist, sits in her high school’s hallway within earshot of a group of pretty, popular girls talking about the things that pretty, popular girls tend to talk about: who kicked it with whom at what party. The conversation creeps around to “AGs” (a slang term, for lesbians who identify as “aggressive”—think butch, but more black). One of the girls casually mentions that some AGs, like Alike, are cute—if only she’d be harder.
Moments like these help bring home one of the Rees’s biggest achievements with the critically acclaimed film: turning what was once taboo (openly gay teens) into something that’s painfully ordinary (kids struggling to fit in). “Pariah,” which opened with an impressive limited release this past weekend, is Rees’s semi-autobiographic tale of a shy but determined teenage poet growing up in middle class Brooklyn. Alike is comfortable enough with her sexuality, but she’s still uncertain of how to wear it. Tougher still is the work that must be done to bring her family and closest friends into the fold, especially when they’re already waging battles against their own personal demons. The film hinges on the belief that there’s no one way to be young, or black, or queer. And while it’s a struggle to come into any identity, those fights are always punctuated by moments of resilience and triumph.
What’s special about “Pariah” is that it, for the most part, successfully tells many stories at once. Alike’s struggle to live openly with her family is the most prominent. But there’s also her socially isolated mother and her bitter, but protective father. And there are the stories that turn on the underreported brutality hundreds of thousands of queer youth of color face each year.
Take Alike’s relationship with her best friend, Laura. More club hopper than bookworm, Laura’s living a hard scrabble life with an older sister after being disowned by her mother. She’s working a low-wage job, studying to earn her GED and spends her weekends on the Greenwich Village piers, which have been a popular hang out spot for queer youth of color for generations. The film’s pier scenes are tinged by melancholy. And rightfully so. A 2007 study found that 20 percent to 40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In New York City, that rate has remained a steady 40 percent. Too many of those young people count on the piers to find both emotional and physical homes. And even there, they have had to organize and fight for their basic right to space.
These aren’t happy-go-lucky tales of gay assimilation. They aren’t the cute, openly gay assistant on a TV sitcom, or the mischievous, two-timing boyfriend vilified by Oprah Winfrey. These are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives amid brutal and highly racialized realities: harassment, violence, chronic unemployment; the frustration that comes with clinging onto a shaky black middle class life, and the sometimes debilitating effort to climb out of poverty. They aren’t the prettiest of tales, but they exist and need to be told.
“Pariah” is one of a handful of recent independent black films that tells them. But it does so in an endearing way that’s filled with jokes and embarrassingly awkward moments. There’s a lighthearted innocence that permeates the film, one that emanates more hope than hardship. In a multimedia piece for the New York Times, cultural critic Nelson George put it this way:
“Pariah” is important, not simply as a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the 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.
What’s most exciting about this mini-movement is that it’s been pushed along by a groundswell of community support. Folks who’ve long been marginalized in media are stepping behind and in front of the camera, or putting their hard earned money together to help pay for it.
After ditching a career in corporate marketing, Rees enrolled in New York University’s filmmaking program and studied under Spike Lee. “Pariah” first got attention back in 2007, when it debuted as a 30-minute short film. Focus Features picked it up early last year right after it had an enormously successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The big names signing on helped it along, but it was on-the-ground work that gave the film its real momentum. Over 200 people donated a total of over $11,000 to the film’s Kickstarter campaign last January. It’s a relatively paltry sum when compared to Hollywood’s annual multi-million dollar blockbusters. But it’s proof that hundreds of people are willing to pay for something different.
Rees summed up the importance of that in George’s Times piece: “There are different ways to be,” she said. “There is no monolithic black identity. My film is less about coming out than who you are and how to be that person. I think we want an extreme diversity of images and voices. And it is not enough to have a lot of films in one year, but to have an ongoing supply of films.”
New Directors Flesh Out Black America, All of It
A New Black Wave?: Nelson George discusses the state of black cinema through a close reading of “Pariah,” directed by Dee Rees.
By NELSON GEORGE
But in “Pariah” the gaze of desire doesn’t emanate from predatory males but A.G.’s, that is aggressive lesbians, who, in a safe space where they enjoy the fellowship of peers, can be true to themselves. Other films have depicted this particular black alternative life (as did a couple of memorable characters in HBO’s masterly series “The Wire”), but no film made by a black lesbian about being a black lesbian has ever received the kind of attention showered on Ms. Rees’s film. It was a major success at the Sundance Festival in January and, even before its limited release on Wednesday, has entered the conversation as a long shot Oscar contender courtesy of the aggressive folks at NBC Universal’s specialty arm, Focus Features.
Ms. Rees, a slight, boyish 34-year-old with a shy demeanor, was recently named breakthrough director of the year at the Gotham Awards, and the film received two Spirit Award nominations, acknowledgements of good will toward the picture in the independent film world. But “Pariah” is important, not simply as a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the 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.
In addition to “Pariah” these features include Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda” and Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky.” The first four made their premieres at Sundance in January, while Ms. Mahoney’s effort appeared at the Berlin Film Festival in February. (Two other films that should also be added to this group: Barry Jenkins’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” from 2008, a day in the life of two black bohemians wandering the streets of San Francisco, and Qasim Basir’s “Mooz-lum” (2011), a character study of a Muslim teenager in the Midwest.)
Along with their festival pedigrees these films and filmmakers share a number of connections. Ms. Rees, Mr. Green and Mr. Brown all attended New York University and received guidance from a professor named Spike Lee. ”Pariah” and “Restless City” were both shot by Bradford Young, a brilliant young director of photography who won the excellence in cinematography award at Sundance.
Most important, the points of view of the films expand the palette of images for black American filmmakers. Mr. Green’s “Gun Hill Road” is set in the Bronx and looks at the tension among a Latino ex-con father, his transgender son and the son’s black lover. Mr. Brown’s film, shot in Central Africa, uses multiple story arcs to dive into the moral abyss of the Rwandan genocide. Mr. Dosunmu captures the hustles and hardships of African immigrants working in and around Canal Street in Manhattan. Ms. Mahoney presents an autobiographical look at a family of a young woman growing up black and Irish in a quasi-suburban, quasi-hood section of Queens. Ms. Rees’s film, though clearly a coming-out story, is also about the ethical evasions affecting all members of a seemingly stable African-American family.
I use African-American, as opposed to black, very specifically in describing the drama at the heart of “Pariah,” since African-American means descendants of African slaves brought to America. Black, however, casts a wider net in dealing with works that depict the lives of people from the entire African diaspora. Mr. Green, who is black and Puerto Rican, and Ms. Mahoney, who is black-Irish, tap into both sides of their ethnicity in their films, just as Ms. Rees looks at herself as both black and lesbian, reconciling the two in her work just as her protagonist does in the film. The African-American Alrick Brown’s journey into the thickets of a brutal African experience and the Nigerian Andrew Dosunmu’s vision of life for Africans in America represent a much needed, unromantic dialogue between blacks on both sides of the Atlantic.
Traditionally films made for, and often by, African-Americans have fallen within a very narrow definition of our experience. Forty years ago the notorious blaxploitation era was in full stride with crime melodramas its stock and trade. Though there was plenty of hack filmmaking then, some gifted directors (Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks Jr.) helped create a worthwhile canon of films in which “the brother man” consistently trumped “the other man” (white authority). Many of the accompanying soundtracks (Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”) were more artful than the images they supported.
Twenty years later, in 1991, 16 films were released theatrically that were directed, produced or written by African-Americans, a historic year that was documented in a cover article in The New York Times Magazine. (I was part of that wave. My screenwriting credits include the 1991 comedy “Strictly Business.”) In retrospect the films of 1991 were really quite varied: a tale of Afrocentric feminism (“Daughters of the Dust”), interracial love drama (“Jungle Fever”), soul era nostalgia (“The Five Heartbeats”). But it was hood movies that grossed the most at the box office (“Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City”) and defined that period.
If there is any historical precedent for this emerging 21st-century movement, it is a collective of black filmmakers who attended the University of California, Los Angeles, in the ’70s, making films that existed under the commercial radar and addressed subjects from neo-realism to pan-Africanism. Among the standout writer-directors in this loose collective were Haile Gerima, Julie Dash and Charles Burnett, whose 1977 masterpiece, “Killer of Sheep,” has been inducted in the National Film Registry.
The desire to identify a new generation of black filmmakers is as important for American cinema as it is for filmmakers and audiences. Halle Berry, Cuba Gooding Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Regina King and Nia Long are among the Oscar nominees, leading men and women, and television regulars who were given their first major exposure in films written, produced and directed by African-Americans. A generation of household faces came out of these films, faces that would otherwise never have had star-making opportunities to carry a film. That these actors crossed over, often to colorblind roles in mainstream entertainment, is a testament to both their skills and the underappreciated role black filmmakers have played as talent scouts.
The acclaim for the previously unknown Adepero Oduye’s performance as the young lesbian Alike in “Pariah” is typical of how black film spotlights otherwise marginalized actors. And there is a very human desire to see people on screen who resemble you, but are better looking, stronger and larger than life. It is the power of movies at their most elemental.
This current mini-movement has none of the certainty about black identity that defined previous periods. Identity — the search for it, the limitations of it, its fluidity — is at the core of all these dramas. Such themes speak to a sophistication that previous generations of filmmakers didn’t possess or rejected since rigid definitions of racial identity are much easier to market. Then again, none of these films have made a substantial dent at the box office.
So a lot rides on the reception for “Pariah,” both as the introduction of Ms. Rees as a major filmmaker and a symbol of this incipient new wave. Certainly some of the excitement surrounding it was ignited by “Precious” in 2009. Both films are small dramas about sexual issues confronting young African-American women in New York City. “Precious,” Lee Daniels’s gothic take on Sapphire’s novel, made $63 million worldwide (on a budget of $10 million), won the screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher an Oscar for his bold adaptation, and was anointed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as executive producers. The film played well to mainstream as well as black audiences, which may have emboldened Mr. Perry to direct “For Colored Girls” (2010), an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s feminist play, and surely factored into the marketing strategy for this year’s black-women-theme blockbuster, “The Help.”
That’s not to suggest that ”Pariah” subscribes to any kind of formula. There is a gentle, almost tentative quality to the journey of Alike (subtly played by Ms. Oduye) that is very much a reflection of Ms. Rees’s personality. This highly autobiographical film began as a feature script in 2005, became a much-lauded short and was expanded back into a feature, with the support of a bevy of executive producers and independent film institutions (Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, IFP, Film Independent). It was shot in 19 days in and around Brooklyn.
While attending New York University from 2003 to 2007 Ms. Rees worked as an intern on Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke,” and his Denzel Washington vehicle, “Inside Man.” Mr. Lee, who has been the artistic director of N.Y.U.’s graduate film program for nearly a decade, critiqued drafts of the script and advised Ms. Rees and her producer, Nekisa Cooper, on fund-raising.
At N.Y.U. Ms. Rees came in contact with Mr. Brown, Mr. Green and several other emerging talents, including Seith Mann, a graduate who has built a successful career directing television dramas like “Dexter.”
“During Seith’s time a lot of the black students began calling themselves ‘the League,’ ” Ms. Rees told me, a reference to the all-black baseball league that ended in the ’50s. The shorthand speaks to a sense of camaraderie that is shared by many of the black students there. If there’s a thread connecting their work, it is that “none of us have reductive views” of black identity, she said. “There are different ways to be. There is no monolithic black identity. My film is less about coming out than becoming into who you are and how to be that person. I think we want an extreme diversity of images and voices. And it is not enough to have a lot of films in one year, but to have an ongoing supply of films.”
Mr. Lee, who taught Ms. Rees, Mr. Green and Mr. Brown in his third-year directing class, is cautious about too much talk of a new wave, noting that very few of the directors who emerged in ’91 are still making features. Still, Mr. Lee, whose own feature “Red Hook Summer” will have its debut at Sundance, is “optimistic about the talent out there and the work being done,” he said in an interview. “But I told Alrick, Dee and Ernesto all the same thing: You got one done, but you can’t rest on your laurels. Don’t make one film and then travel with that one print to film festivals. You need to get the next one going and the one after that. The idea is to build a body of work.”
Ms. Rees has been busy doing just that since Sundance, writing an HBO pilot, another film for Focus and a spec script about an insurance adjuster, all featuring lesbian or bisexual characters. “Sexuality is not an issue” in these scripts, Ms. Rees cautioned. And in a comment that could refer to racial identity as well, she added, “They are people, and that’s just part of who they are.”
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Writer/Director/Producer Rodney Evans talks about shooting a historical film on a budget, working with actors for the first time and who holds the power in the film industry.
What led you to make BROTHER TO BROTHER?
The origins of it really were the short films I was making earlier, mainly a documentary film called Close To Home that dealt with personal experiences such as coming out to my family and the repercussions of that. It also documented the disintegration of a relationship I was in as it was happening. There’s one scene in that film where I break up with the person that I’m seeing on camera. I started to think about how that scene would work in a larger narrative context, and about how my life would be different if I had lived in a different time period. That led to my researching the Harlem Renaissance, specifically the gay underground within the Renaissance. I found a video interview of Bruce Nugent in his elderly years at the Schomburg Library in Harlem and I was fascinated by him and struck by the similarities between his experiences and mine. That was the real inspiration between BROTHER TO BROTHER’s central relationship, between Bruce and Perry—a relationship between two black artists from different generations.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Financing was the biggest struggle: we were forced to make the film in a very unorthodox way. We raised as much money as we could and then just started shooting. We shot for six days and then used those scenes to raise more money over the course of a year. Then I called all the actors back a year later and we picked up where we left off. One of the lead actors, playing the part of Older Bruce, got frustrated with the waiting and decided he didn’t want to be part of the project anymore. So then I had to reopen the casting process and find another actor for that part and re-shoot the initial scenes that were done with the original actor. So that was a big challenge, and also having the rest of the actors create their characters and give strong, believable performances while having to deal with this yearlong hiatus in shooting.
Doing a film where 40 percent of the scenes were taking place during the Harlem Renaissance and trying to recreate that whole world on a very low budget was definitely also a huge challenge. It was a wildly ambitious thing to shoot for that amount of money in less than 30 days.
What impact do you hope this film will have? What was the audience response been so far?
I think ultimately I want the film to really move the audience on an emotional level. I want them to follow the relationship of the main characters, Bruce and Perry, and see how they affect and transform each other.
I also wanted to illuminate the rich period known as the Harlem Renaissance and shed light on the back-stories of people like Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. I wanted to pay homage to their bravery in saying things in the black community that had never been said before, addressing topics like homosexuality, class issues, intraracial skin color prejudice… all that was very groundbreaking during the time. I wanted to bring the experiences of these writers to the screen for people who didn’t really know about them.
What was it like working with the actors in BROTHER TO BROTHER?
It was amazing. I feel incredibly blessed that I found such a gifted cast to work with. This was my first narrative film, so it was my first time working with actors. I had fallen in love with all the individual writers portrayed in the film, so it was great to find these actors who really embodied their spirits and brought them to life on film.
The film also served to fill a void in terms of the roles that black actors are allowed to play in mainstream Hollywood cinema. I was fortunate to find even more well-known actors who were interested in the film because of the depth of the characters and because of their own passion for the story. It was a real collective passion that got the film made.
From your experience, what do you think are some barriers that face filmmakers who create material about gay African American characters?
Ultimately, the people in positions of power in the film industry didn’t really understand the value of the history being dealt with in my film. So then it became a process of educating people about a culture they knew very little about. Until enough black people are in power to green light films, that lack of understanding of the complexity of black life will continue to be reflected in what we see on screen.
The realities of the film industry forced us to go out into the black gay community and do fundraising and benefits and get the people who were reflected on screen to realize that we needed their help to get this film done.
It really is about who has the power in the film industry and what stories they value. That has the largest impact on the kinds of films that are financed.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I become motivated by stories I’m burning to tell, whether they’re based on people I find a connection with in history or whether it’s being a witness to real-life experiences. This passion to tell very specific kinds of stories keeps me working and willing to fight the fight to get this work done.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I was interested in reaching as broad an audience as possible, with people from varying classes. I liked the fact that public television has such a far-reaching audience and people don’t have to subscribe to a cable channel or pay to see the movie.
What are your three favorite films?
Here are three that influenced BROTHER TO BROTHER:
My Own Private Idaho
The subject matter and styles of these films and the ways the stories unfolded were all really inspirational for BROTHER TO BROTHER and these were films that I kept going back to over and over again.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
This film was so all-encompassing that I really had to want it so badly that I allowed it to take up 99.9 percent of my life. And it was a six-year process of making the film. It was the be all and end all of my life and everything else had to take a secondary position, be it family, love, eating well…
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I definitely feel like I’d be an artist on some level. Before I “settled” on film I was dabbling in a lot of different art forms. I’d be a musician or a writer, something related to storytelling.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Definitely Marlon Riggs.
Todd Haynes, I’m constantly inspired by his abilities to reinvent himself and his work.
Fassbinder, especially In A Year of 13 Moons.
And a lot of more experimental documentary filmmakers, such as Robert Frank and Greta Snider.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
My main advice would be to have a story that you’re burning to tell that you’re passionate about. That will get you through all the obstacles and closed doors and rejections and financing nightmares… It has to be the story that ultimately gets you through those dark days.