Thursday, April 19, 2012

I finally saw Pariah!

I didn't tell you all about it earlier because I saw it the weekend before my thesis was due and then I kind of forgot all about wanting to write this post until right now.

I really, really liked it. First off, it was kind of amazing to see it on campus with a large group of LGBT and ally-identified students. It created this alternative sort of social space within this quaint little theater right off campus where it was totally normal for me to be snuggled up with and lightly fondling CC throughout the show. It felt "normal" to hold her hand or run my fingers up and down her thigh as we watched (not that heterosexuality is any more "normal" than any other form of human sexuality--it's just more common). I'm not sure I had ever before been in a space where I was surrounded by more non-straight-identified people than straight-identified people, at least consciously, and it made me want to seek out such spaces more often.

I was drawn in to the movie from the beginning. The characters felt refreshingly real. They seemed like actual people I could know in the world, which has happened so rarely for me with "Black movies" recently. Alike was the perfect combination of vulnerable and determined, cautious and exploratory--watching her come into her own sexuality and style and identity reminded me of my own struggles, even though they're not the same in the slightest. I don't think it was hard for viewers to identify with her, above simply sympathizing with her. I saw the relationships as realistic, if painful. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to punch bitches in the face, I wanted to give the characters hugs. 

...But my friend MH compared it to Precious, an independent Black film which I absolutely detest. (More on that here if you're interested.) And this has made me step back and critically examine my interpretation of the film, because the comparison is not unwarranted. From an objective standpoint, this is a film about a specific marginalized Black female experience directed towards a largely outsider audience which conforms to various stereotypes of the African experience (homophobia, strict parenting, domestic violence, infidelity among men) and ends with the main character rejecting normative structures in favor of a brand of radical independence which she may or may not survive. It may not feature as many horrible life experiences or as thorough subjugation on the part of the main character, but the film is structurally quite similar to that of Precious. So how could I interpret them so differently?

Perhaps I need to check my privilege. I'm both closer to and farther removed from the specifics of this story in some interesting ways. Wrestling with my own sexuality, check. Putting all of myself into a first romantic encounter only to be told my supposed partner "isn't ready," check. Little sister coming to sleep in my bed when the parents are screaming at each other in the middle of the night, check. But my heart broke when this teenage girl came out to her very unaccepting parents, and part of that heartbreak was thinking that I will never go through what she's going through in that scene. I'm about 95% sure that my attraction to women is something my parents will never know about, unless I find myself in a serious long-term relationship with a woman, which doesn't seem likely at this point in my life. For right now, at least, that aspect of my life isn't such a large aspect of my life that they need to know about it. In fact, as I didn't come into this aspect of myself until semi-adulthood, I could feasibly never tell them, even if I do get into a relationship with a woman, because they're not overseeing my life like that anymore. They don't get to question/control me like that anymore. 

And then on an entirely other level, the stereotypes in this film aren't stereotypes that people would put on me. In fact, I didn't really even recognize them as stereotypes to begin with. They aligned so well with my interpretation of African cultures and intolerances that I didn't question...and that worries me. So I guess I'm wondering how that in-group received this movie, and whether I should be less quick to love it. Which then makes me wonder if I should be less quick to judge all the people who loved Precious. Also, the juxtaposition of the terms "Precious" and "Pariah," which have basically opposite meanings, to represent these characters with similar lives fascinates me. There's some critical commentary there that someone should unpack...

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