How did you get involved in the making of “Pariah”?
Well, to take a step back, my whole journey into film has been pretty roundabout in that I didn’t start out knowing that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Going into undergrad, I knew that I loved writing, but was afraid to major in English or Journalism because it didn’t seem “practical”. So I chased the money and majored in business administration and got my MBA instead because it seemed like a more secure future. I thought that I could write on weekends and in my spare time, but I was absolutely miserable in corporate America, and after bouncing around three different companies decided to finally just quit my job and pursue my love of writing.
I looked at creative writing programs initially, but once I started learning about screenwriting and film programs, I was completely sold on the idea of being able to literally bring my characters to life, and I applied to NYU and (to my own amazement) got accepted, and that was it. I came to the craft completely new and learned everything I know about filmmaking at NYU. I’ve still got a long, long way to go and lots to learn but I’m just going to keep plugging away.
Pariah, in particular is a very personal story for me and is semi-autobiographical in that when I was growing up, I felt like I was never really comfortable being myself. I’ve only recently come into and accepted my sexual identity, and when I first moved to New York, it blew my mind that there were these out and proud teenage women who not only KNEW who they were, but weren’t afraid to BE themselves. I didn’t even know who I was in that sense as a teenager, and I asked myself whether even if I did know back then, would I have had the courage to be who I was? The answer was no. I started writing the feature script for PARIAH during lunch breaks and in- between set-ups when I was an intern on the set of Spike Lee’s film INSIDE MAN in the Summer of 2005. I was still a student at NYU at the time and I needed a thesis film to graduate, so I took an excerpt form the script and shot it as a short film in the Fall of 2006. The short did really well
on the festival circuit, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to workshop the feature script at the 2007 Sundance Screenwriting lab and the 2008 Director’s Lab. It’s come a very long way from where it started, and now we’re finally getting back around to finally shooting the feature this summer.
How can BLACKstream readers support the making of Pariah?
PARIAH is a semi-finalist in the Netflix FIND Your Voice Competition, but it’s a very close race and we need support in garnering wider backing for the project across the African-American community. PARIAH is the only African-American project in the competition and we really need voices across all communities to show the film industry that we want to see this story and more stories like this represented onscreen.
Please support us by visiting www.netflixfindyourvoice.com to view and vote for our trailer—it only takes 2 minutes and can make a huge difference! You can also support us by forwarding this message far and wide to your friends and family (and you can also share on facebook, twitter, etc…) Only the top 5 projects in this round move on, and we’re currently in 6th place and hanging on by a thread… Our goal is to get 10,000 stars, so any support you could lend us in getting this out to the community would be amazing!! You can also visit the film’s website at www.pariahthemovie.com where you can learn more about myself and the project’s history.
Thanks so much for your support. I believe that this film is a very important story that needs to be told and would be extremely grateful for any help you could lend!
What did you observe about black identity, or gender identity, as you made this film?
In terms of gender identity, one of the biggest things that I wanted to bring into focus with this film is the irony of how the rigid heterosexual concepts of male and female are often recreated in
lesbian culture with the equally binary roles of “butch” and “femme” and illustrate how members
of this community often feel pressured to “check a box” to avoid being ignored or dismissed.
When these roles are a natural expression of one’s inner self, there is no problem–such as in the
case of “ Laura,” who is Alike’s best friend and identifies as “butch”. However, when one doesn’t
fit neatly into one of these roles, like the lead character, Alike, it can place undue pressure on the
individual to be something they’re not.
Because Alike lives in social environments that demand that there be no ambiguity– at home, at
school and with her friends, she feels that she’s neither accepted in mainstream culture nor in her
own sub-culture and thus she is a “pariah”—a person in a degrading and lonely state of social limbo where she has no place and there is no place for her. For me, I think this state of being is best captured by a quote from Audre Lorde: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.”
Furthermore, when you lay sexual identity atop black identity, there exists this sort of dual – consciousness where you’re constantly being asked to prioritize one over the other and it’s really impossible. In this film, I wanted to bring to light the experiences of gay youth of color because homosexuality in communities of color is still very much something that viewed as highest taboo and an abomination so that people who are gay and of color have a double battle to fight, with sometimes the most vicious battle being at home. It’s something that I’m still struggling with in my family.
What was your greatest obstacle in the making of Pariah, and how did you overcome it?
Well in making the short film, we spent seven months in pre-production and it was definitely an
uphill battle in gathering the resources we needed to get the project done. Nekisa Cooper, the
producer did all the “heavy lifting” and was a miracle worker in making everything happen, and
cultivating relationships. The production experience was extremely intense it was really hard, dirty
work—we were driving the grip trucks and the RV to set ourselves, and we were always the first
people working everyday and the last people to leave the set. We overcame that just with the
enormous passion and talent of the people around us. The actors were amazing, my DP Brad
Young was a genius, and my producer Nekisa was absolutely down for whatever and had my
back at all times, so as it was coming along and I was watching the performances I could see that
it was what I envisioned and even better in some instances. Adepero Oduye played the lead role
‘Alike’ and Pernell Walker played the supporting lead ‘Laura’ and I’m convinced that those two will
be movie stars any minute now and I’m so honored to have worked with them. Wendell Pierce
was incredibly generous in donating his time and he was a force—it was really humbling and an
honor to work with him.
We’re currently in pre-production on the feature film, and I have to say that the biggest obstacle is
still the same—just finding the money and resources to get the film made. But we’ve been really
blessed to have the support of the Sundance Institute and a lot of other independent film
organizations along the way, and more importantly our little “family” of actors and artists are just
as passionate and committed to making this film as ever, so that’s how we’ll overcome it again.
Basically, it’s all about relationships, and in the end the community and various corporate
organizations have been great in donating certain services and equipment but you really have to
give yourself enough time to build them and have a tremendous amount of patience and
What were the most satisfying moments in the making of “Pariah”?
Well, we haven’t shot the feature film yet, but intend to do so by any means necessary this
Summer. For me, just working with the actors is always the most satisfying part for me because
it’s just unbelievable to watch them inhabit characters and bring words off of the page and into
“life”. We’re thrilled to be bringing back Adepero and Pernell back for the feature and I’m most
looking forward to getting into rehearsals with them.
What are your plans for the future distribution when the film is complete?
We hope to introduce PARIAH on the festival circuit in the Spring of 2010 and then go for a “platform” theatrical release. The short film did really well on the festival circuit in 2007/2008, so
we feel that we have a story that really connects with people and resonates emotionally on some
level. Pariah is about identity. I think that identity is something that everyone has struggled with
in some way and at some point in their lives so I think it’s a very universal struggle and
experience that all audiences can relate to.
The short film will actually be available for sale exclusively for the educational/institutional markets this Fall through New Day Films http://www.newday.com/films/pariah.html. The short has screened at high school gay-straight alliances and we also had an amazing screening at the Hetrick-Martin Institute (Harvey Milk School) in New York this past Spring and kids from Green Chimneys, The Ali Forney Center and HMI all came out. There have been a lot of gay youth of color that have come forward and said we told their story, which for me is the highest compliment. I think awareness is the first step in creating change and to opening discussion, and the film has definitely done that.