Seldom do I see my image anywhere, and certainly not portrayed in non-stereotypical and non-heterosexist ways on the silver screen. As a matter of fact, if you Google “black lesbians” or “black lesbians in film,” you’ll get a plethora of porn sites to visit.
But writer-director Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama “Pariah” gives me a glimpse of my younger self growing up in Brooklyn.
“Pariah” is about Alike (pronounced “ah-lee-kay”), a virginal, 17-year-old, African-American, lesbian high-school student living in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. She doesn’t know how to come out to her parents, is eager to have her first sexual experience, and isn’t sure of the type of butch lesbian she wants to be: a “soft stud,” one of the “aggressive lesbians” (a subculture of young, butch lesbians who adopt a gangster hip-hop persona to complete for femme women), or something totally different.
“Alike knows that she loves women; that’s not the question. The question is ‘how to be,’” Rees told NPR. “And so, in my own struggle, a large part of my question was how to be in the world.”
One of the ways of defining how to be in the world, especially for high schoolers, is through clothes. But with a mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), who demonstrates zero tolerance for her daughter’s non-gender-conforming ways, especially exhibited by Alike’s taste for non-frilly-femme attire, we see Alike forced to be a gender chameleon, changing into her butch togs going to school and out of them going home.
“Pariah” wouldn’t be an authentic black coming-out tale if religious homophobia didn’t show its countenance on someone. And Audrey is that person.
In hopes that her shy tomboyish daughter might blossom into a more socially friendly and feminine girl, Audrey convinces a churchgoer that their daughters, who are in the same class, should walk to school together for safety reasons. And not surprising to those of us of the black church, Alike’s first sexual experience is with one of the churchgoer’s daughters.
To find antecedents or reflections of yourself, especially in American films, is difficult, which is why Pariah’s title and theme of portraying black lesbian life, albeit marginalized in both African-American church and white LGBTQ communities, in a positive and realistic light is thoroughly refreshing.
Occasionally, however, we will see present-day portrayals of black lesbians on major television channels and in major movie house across the country, but not by out black lesbians.
For example, in the 2009 film “Precious,” Paula Patton plays Ms. Blu Rain, a lesbian teacher who helps Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) embrace her life’s worth and her sexuality. Patton inspires Precious to learn to read, and to write, giving her a daily writing assignment that eventually leads to Precious coming into her own. And with Patton understanding both the New York welfare system and the New York public school system, she is portrayed in the film as both an intellectual and an activist who’s not going to let Precious fail or fall under her watch.
Another example: in 1996, we had Queen Latifah’s spot-on portrayal of a butch lesbian in the movie “Set It Off,” which of course set off a conflagration of queries about her real-life sexual orientation. Last summer Latifah’s character on the show “Single Ladies,” which she executive produces, was accidentally outed, and this worked out in a positive way for the character. Viewers and the blogosphere began to speculate that Latifah was channeling her personal life through her small-screen character.
But films written and directed by women of color that reach the major silver screen are rare, and those by LBTQ women of color are even rarer. The last time I saw a film written and directed by an LBTQ woman of color that reached the level of mass distribution and international acclaim that Pariah has achieved was 16 years ago. In 1996 Cheryl Dunye wrote, directed, and starred in her first film, “The Watermelon Woman,” which was also the first African-American lesbian feature film.
Dunye’s “mockumentary” is a scathing critique of the racist cinematic representation of black women. The protagonist of the film, played by Dunye, makes a film about an obscure black actress from the 1930s known for playing the stereotypical “mammy” roles to which black actresses were relegated during that era. In this faux-cinÃ©ma-vÃ©ritÃ© account of a black lesbian filmmaker uncovering the hidden histories of black women, straight and LBTQ, controversial cultural critic Camille Paglia makes a cameo appearance, informing Dunye that the “mammy” archetype once represented a black goddess figure.
And unbeknownst to the general public, 20 feature films have been directed by black lesbians since Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman.” Dunye’s mockumentary came out during the height of black queer cinema, from 1991 to 1996, dubbed the “Golden Age,” when black lesbians’ films were predominately documentaries seen by small audiences, unfortunately.
“That was the period of time when we had the most women producing the widest variety of work,” African-American lesbian filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, founder and director of Sisters in Cinema, told The Root reporter Salamishah Tillet. “Approximately 50 percent of all work produced was made during that five-year time period. Very little work is being produced today by out black lesbian media makers. So maybe Dee Rees is part of the trend of the mainstreaming of niche content that we see happening across all media platforms.”
It’s my hope that “Pariah” will be part of the trend of the mainstreaming of niche content. Black lesbian cinematic representation is long overdue.