She's Gotta Have It: Lesbian Filmmaker Dee Rees Is Poised to Enter a Small Club of Prominent Queer Women of Color Directors with Pariah, Her Stunning Spike Lee-Produced Movie about an Urban Teen Coming of Age

By Karpel, Ari | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 2011 | Go to article overview

She's Gotta Have It: Lesbian Filmmaker Dee Rees Is Poised to Enter a Small Club of Prominent Queer Women of Color Directors with Pariah, Her Stunning Spike Lee-Produced Movie about an Urban Teen Coming of Age


Karpel, Ari, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


GROWING UP IN NASHVILLE in the 1980s, Dee Rees saw few images of young black women on the screen. And fewer still of black lesbians.

One of the rare times she did was in The Color Purple, but when Rees watched that 1985 movie in the company of her parents, they made her cover her eyes for the most important moment--a kiss between Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery). "When it came to sexuality"--straight or gay, says Rees--"they were very closely watching what I was watching."

No doubt a lot of women will be closely watching when Rees's movie Pariah opens in theaters December 25. Her feature writing and directing debut follows Alike (pronounced a-LEE-kay), a black high school girl whose family is coming to realize she's a lesbian. The film screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution by Focus Features.

Now Rees is joining the ranks of the extremely short list of black lesbian filmmakers with feature films that have garnered mainstream attention: Cheryl Dunye and Angela Robinson. Other black lesbian filmmakers, like Tamika Miller, Debra Wilson, Shari Frilot, and Yvonne Welbon (who catalogs works by black women directors on her website SistersInCinema.com), have put out films deserving of larger consumption, though they aren't the kind of thing you'll find on Netflix, even today.

"There's a dearth of media around young black women and certainly a dearth of LGBT media for people of color," Rees says rapidly. "Hopefully, this will be a marker in the road, and there will be many more to add to the landscape. There's not a lot out there."

Still, Rees sees Pariah as more about identity than sexuality. "Alike hasn't been with anyone yet and hasn't figured out where she fits on the spectrum of femme to butch, and she only sees extremes around her," she says. In that respect, Pariah is autobiographical; when Rees came out, she felt out of place. "I'd go to lesbian parties. I felt like I wasn't hard enough to be butch, but I wasn't wearing heels and a skirt, I wasn't femme, so I felt like I was sort of invisible," she recalls.

Like Alike's parents, Rees's were not accepting, but the filmmaker did not experience the physical violence that the protagonist of her film does. Rees came out at 27, much later than Alike. When she did, her parents flew from Nashville to New York for an intervention. "It was a hard struggle to get them to realize that nobody did anything wrong and there's nothing wrong with me. And I'm still the same person that I was," she says.

She may be the same person, but Rees has gone through quite a transition. In what she calls her "first life," Rees got an MBA and went to work in marketing and brand management, first for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati and then for a company that markets Dr. …

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