Wednesday, January 4, 2012
First You Gotta Put Your Neck Into It: Loving Pariah
I went to see Pariah on opening night in San Francisco last Wednesday. And I loved it, from the very beginning. In fact, it was the beginning that I really loved. From the first few minutes of the opening scene of a queer women's dance club, fully equipped with scantily-clad go-go dancers and Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" playing in the background, I was pulled in. Given that you know, as a moviegoer, that the movie is about a young, Black lesbian coming of age in Brooklyn, those lyrics and the go-go dancer in slow motion take on a different meaning. At least I think it does. If you don't know the words, or haven't heard the song before, it starts out like this:
All you ladies pop your pussy like this/Shake your body don't stop, don't miss/All you ladies pop your pussy like this/Shake your body don't stop, don't miss/Just do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now/Lick it good/Suck this pussy/Just like you should/Right now, lick it good/Suck this pussy just like you should/My neck, my back, lick my pussy and my crack
Now, imagine those lyrics with a young Alike, the protagonist, smiling, with a line of women behind her with dollars, her best friend, Laura, included. I know this doesn't change the fact that there is a half naked woman dancing on a stoop with people throwing money at her but, personally, having the film open in this way signaled that this film was indeed, mine. It was ours.
I've written about the context of queer women's clubs being a place, another place for me to come out as a queer Black woman and to (re)embrace my love of hip-hop (look, if it wasn't for queer girl clubs, I'd still only be listening to Belle and Sebastian). And while I'm not the clubster I once was, it still serves as a site that makes me love being queer and being in queer women's community. Squeezing onto a packed dance floor with a bunch of other women who dig other women and are only there for the purpose of looking for someone to take home, look good for their partner that they dance with all night, or just getting a chance to "release" on the dance floor with their friends? Sign me up. Even if it's over a sexist, misogynistic beat, which it usually is. But I love it. And, I'm not going to defend Khia's lyrics or my stance. Look, I'm a bit more of a shy, easily embarrassed feminist so to continue to sing along to the lyrics:
First you gotta put your neck into it/Don't stop just do it, do it/Then you roll your tongue/From the crack/Back to the front/Then ya suck it all/Til I shake and cum
You know, it makes my cheeks a little red, even as I sit here and type.
But the choice to open this film about a queer, Black woman with this song, centers the experience of Black lesbians in an important way. It signals that this isn't "the feel good film of the year," in the way that we all want to relate to film characters and feel good when we leave the theater. Rather, it suggests that you are here as part of my experience and I'm not here to make you feel good in the way that we all want to feel good about gays and lesbians in this particular moment. In other words, Ilene Chaiken's version(s). And, Pariah is not the first film about Black lesbians to do this, as Salamishah Tillet (and others) has pointed out, Pariah rests on the shoulders of the brilliant, often overlooked Black lesbian filmmaking of the last two decades. But what I love about Pariah being released last week, at a time when there are gay characters all over nightly television sitcoms, and we all love gay people, is the opening scene and others that make no apologies for being queer. There's no "we're just like you" narrative underlying the film, or "look, I'm just a normal girl trying to figure out who I am, let me be." No, from my reading, Pariah says, "this is what it looks like, if you're in, let's go, otherwise, peace!" And how refreshing is that from a queer woman of color perspective? Especially from a butch perspective.
Which is the other thing I love about the movie. Alike, for all intents and purposes, is butch--or presenting as butch in the beginning of the movie. And we all know how I feel about butches, or, in this case, those trying to figure out their gender presentation (go ahead figure it out, I'll wait:). If you don't know, I *LOVE* them. And, I LOVED who Alike, and her best friend Laura, was in the film. No apologies. She (they) pushed her way into various settings, even when she had to cover herself up at home. Broken open. Like the scene when one of the girls at her school who "liked girls, but loved men" glanced in her direction and, within earshot, said, "she's cute, but if she was just a little bit harder." Swoon. And another moment of "get in or get out." Similar to when Alike was trying on the strap-on that Laura got her and her sister walked in. Unapologetic. She, and Laura, pushed back on their mother's rejection (which, I have to say, is not the freshest representation of Black motherhood, and a critique that Summer M. nails over at the Black Youth Project), without changing who they were. Even Alike's pushing back on Laura's expectations of her presentation and her sexuality is a strong statement of who she is. Breaking is opening. And that's a brave take on Black queerness in this moment. A moment when real Black queerness (if you can say such a thing) is overlooked, discredited, and ignored.
So thank you, Dee Rees, for putting your neck into it. And for remembering that Black queer girls are not broken. We are free.