I'm an independent film producer. This is my third career; I started coaching college basketball and then got my MBA to work in brand management for companies like Colgate Palmolive, L'Oreal, and General Electric, where I learned how to run businesses and take ideas from a concept to "a shelf near you."
I fell into producing because I met the talented Dee Rees while she was working on toothpaste at Colgate and I was working on toothbrushes. I remained friends with her as she left the corporate world for graduate school at NYU, and once I started helping her "produce" short films, I knew that supporting artists through producing was the perfect intersection of my talents as an athlete, coach, and businesswoman. What I did not know at the time was the power of film and how it could truly touch lives, inspire, and be a tool for change. I learned that lesson while producing Pariah.
When I read the feature script version of Pariah in 2005, I was blown away by the richness of the worlds, the authenticity, and, more importantly, the vulnerability and fullness of the characters. Right away I was drawn to the lead character, Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a 17-year-old, black lesbian juggling multiple identities in an effort to please her family and friends. I related to her hiding her sexual identity from her parents and struggling so hard to assimilate and fit in with her friends. I'm a military brat raised in Catholicism who moved every two to three years and had to learn quickly how to adapt to new surroundings, to fit in, to perform and meet not only my parent's expectations but also those of my friends and peers. I, like Alike, became a chameleon whose persona changed to fit the moment and to please those around me so much that I didn't realize I was losing myself. I knew that I loved women when I was in college, and I struggled royally to reconcile my sexuality with my spirituality and the expectations of my family and friends.
Fast forward to 2005, when I find myself reading Pariah and thinking about Alike's struggles with her parents and reflecting on my relationship with my parents. By then my father had been ordained as a deacon in the Catholic church, my mom dutifully by his side, and the family operating in a weird space where we didn't really "talk." I didn't have the courage to sit down and talk to my parents about my need and desire to be closer to them through sharing my deepest fears and joys about my relationships with women, but I knew Pariah could be a powerful tool to humanize and contextualize that struggle and, more importantly, the struggles of LGBT youth, and spark meaningful dialogue.
Dee and I made the short-film version in 2006, and it travelled the world to over 40 festivals and won over 25 Best Short awards in festivals that were mainstream, LGBT-, and people-of-color-focused, proving that this coming-of-age story told from a specific perspective was universal. People, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexuality, were finding themselves in the film and relating to the memory or reality of feeling like an outsider or an "other" at one time in their life.
I never showed my parents the short film. I thought they had seen it on iTunes, but we never talked about it. I was too afraid. As the project started to pick up traction through the Sundance Institute, Rockefeller Grants, etc., my parents were proud of me, but we never talked about the content of the film. They supported me from afar, loaning money, a car that served as a production car and picture car for shooting, and though they eventually invested in the film, we never talked about the content. I invited them to come to Sundance for the world premiere of the film, and they were proud but politely declined. They were even more proud when I told them the film was picked up by Focus Features and set to be in theaters sometime in 2011. And, as the year moved on and I delivered the film to Focus and we learned of our release date, my anxiety grew about how public the film would be, and I was terrified that my family would reject it and reject me. This past Labor Day, I was also worried because they had started to tell their friends and family about the successes of Pariah, and I didn't want them to be embarrassed because they were unaware of the content, so I asked Focus to give me a screener to show them. Instead of a screener, Focus rented a theater five miles from my parents' home in the Atlanta area, and the three of us screened the movie together. I sat seven rows behind my parents, terrified as I watched the back of their heads for any kind of movement, sweating during the parts where I thought they would get up and walk out, and when the credits started rolling and they were still in the theater, I was so exhausted that I could barely stand to face them. They stood up and were whispering to themselves, and I walked down to their row, where my mom gave me a huge hug and told me, "You did a good job." I looked at my father, and he had tears in his eyes as he hugged me. He had missed his name in the credits, so I asked the theater to run the tape back for them to watch the credits over, and as they rolled, I cried. Afterward we went to Dairy Queen and had one of the most robust and real conversations about family, sexuality, and relationships we'd ever had. Two months later, during the Pariah publicity stop in Atlanta, my parents invited friends, co-workers, and extended family to one of the preview screenings, where everyone loved the film, and we laughed, took pictures, and really talked to each other without masks and filters. When we had the New York City premiere, my parents sat in the audience with Dee's parents and watched the film together with the rest of the Pariah family. It was in that moment that I understood the power of film.
There are so many examples of incredible films that have touched lives in a meaningful and sustainable ways, and if there's just one person who buys a bucket of popcorn and watches Pariah and feels that way about this film, my job in pulling together all the resources to make Dee's vision a reality will be done.
The film opens in select theaters on Dec 28. To learn more, visit pariahmovie.com. Watch a Q&A with the cast and crew, including star Adepero Oduye, writer/director Dee Rees, and producer Nekisa Cooper: