“I needed a short to graduate from NYU,” says Rees. “As the short got attention at festivals, I was invited to the Sundance Institute to develop it into a film. It’s had an interesting evolution. We all think that the length of time it took to make this has made it a better film than had we been able to shoot it right away.”
That first film had a slightly different scope, she feels.
“We have more understanding of the characters now,” Rees says. “Audrey and Arthur got more well-rounded.”
When the current film was finished, Rees submitted it back to Sundance for their annual film festival and got in — as the opening night feature.
“It was exciting and scary all at once, waiting to get in, and then realizing we were in competition and on opening night,” she says. “The cast was there for the first time. It was a big vote of confidence for us.”
“Pariah” eventually won the Cinematography Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Rees calls the film semi-autobiographical.
“Alike’s struggle is similar to mine,” she says. “She knows who she is. She understands that she loves women; for her it’s more a question of who she is going to become.”
Oduye, who was also in the short film, agrees.
“Alike is a teenage girl trying to figure out who she wants to be,” she explains.
Audrey turns out to be the parent who has the most difficulty accepting the situation.
“She is very lonely, and is having a difficult time with her marriage,” says Wayans. “She is trying to determine how she can avert this disaster from happening, in her mind.
“That was the challenge, to bring this woman and her humanity to life,” Wayans continues. “I saw her as a woman who was in pain herself, a mother trying to save her marriage. She is a victim as much as everyone else, a victim of how she was raised. She believes she is getting the best thing for her daughter, stopping her from being a lesbian.”
‘Someone like me’
Having grown up with few role models, Rees is happy that “Pariah” touches on areas rarely covered in film.
“When I was growing up, I only had a few points of reference,” she says. “I had literary influences such as Alice Walker and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison I read that were kind of feminists, and there was the kissing scene in ‘The Color Purple’ and the two women in ‘The Women of Brewster Place.’ I didn’t see a lot more.
“As I grew older and came out, I discovered others,” Rees says. “I guess I will say that the stories that are being made are reflections of the filmmakers who are making them.
“In this film, I wanted to see myself, someone like me. As the people behind the camera become more diverse, I think the stories will become more diverse.”
Cooper, who attended Clark Atlanta University, has been working with Rees since the short film and was joined by her family here for a local screening of the film. She was afraid to show them the film at first but is now glad she did.
“What we found is that people were finding themselves in the short and now the film,” says Cooper. “What we saw were audiences with people seeing themselves, making relevant connections to their own life. It made them think of things in a different way.”
A man at Sundance approached them after the screening and said that while he didn’t like gay movies, he liked theirs, says Cooper.
Both Rees and Cooper admit it was not easy raising money for the production.
“It was not easy getting the money to make the film,” says Rees. “Black, gay, coming of age are the wrong words; these are not the words that speak box office success. But people said we shouldn’t make the short and we shouldn’t make the feature and I shouldn’t write something so close (to me).
“People are now saying it’s not going to be an awards contender, that people aren’t going to see it, and we are going to prove them wrong again,” she says. “It will hopefully open doors for others.”
Top photo: ‘Pariah’ stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, a 17-year-old girl coming out as a lesbian. Kim Wayans (pictured) plays her mother in the ground-breaking film directed by Dee Rees. (courtesy Focus Features)