The path to living as one’s authentic self is paved with trials and tribulations in this revelatory, assured feature debut by Dee Rees—the all-too-rare coming-of-age tale to honestly represent the experiences of queer Black women. Grounded in the fine-grained specificity and deft characterizations of Rees’s script and built around a beautifully layered performance from Adepero Oduye, Pariah follows Brooklyn teenager Alike, who is dealing with the emotional minefields of both first love and heartache and the disapproval of her family as she navigates the expression of her gender and sexual identities within a system that does not make space for them. Achieving an aching intimacy with its subject through the expressive cinematography of Bradford Young, this deeply felt portrait finds strength in vulnerability and liberation in letting go.
The Criterion Collection presents Dee Rees’ first feature Pariah on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The film has been given a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
Criterion appears to be using the same master Universal used for their previous Blu-ray edition (a 2K transfer from the 35mm original camera negative), which is fine, but it has its fair share of ups and downs. The best aspect of the presentation is in its rendering of the film’s colours. Pariah is stunning to look at and I think a lot of that comes down to the colours and how they're layered over the image, teals, violets, greens, and reds coming front and center, along with sepias and yellows where deemed appropriate. It’s quite striking, particularly in the many darker scenes scattered about. The opening club sequence, for example, is very dark, black levels very thick and deep, only to suddenly throw a vibrant red or blue into the mix. Dynamic range is pretty good in these sequences, highlights looking sharp. If the film ever got a 4K restoration with HDR (something that may sadly be unlikely if it couldn’t even get a new 4K restoration here) and then a UHD disc, that disc would have the potential to be demo material for the format. I initially questioned why Rees and Young wouldn't have bothered shooting Pariah in digital to potentially save money, choosing film instead, but I see why now, and a discussion found within the disc's supplements confirm lighting and colours weighed heavily into the decision. It paid off.
The presentation is also good in other areas. Again, black levels are strong with nice shades and shadows, no signs of crushing present. The image is also free of source damage, which is pretty much expected since the master would have been created for the film’s release. Detail is also excellent, the picture never going soft.
Where the presentation falls short is that the image, in the end, still has a bit of a digital look, and a lot of that could just come down to a weaker, dated master. Grain is there but it comes off a little noisy, not as clean as I would have liked (and scrubbed away a bit on some scenes), and there is the occasional instance of ringing around objects, some faint banding, and motion blur during some of the quicker actions, like a fight closer to the end. Artifacting is also present around objects. And though I did give praise to how colours are rendered and how brighter objects are presented in darker scenes, it's also in these sequences where some of the inherent artifacts are more obvious. The presentation really lacks a film quality in the end, and I’m blaming this more on the master Universal has supplied.
The presentation still has its striking aspects, and I’m still happy with it for the most part. I’m just somewhat surprised it wasn’t seen fit to give the film an all-new 4K restoration, because this film could look so much better on home video.
The film’s 5.1 surround soundtrack is presented here in DTS-HD MA. It’s a very dynamic track that starts things off in a loud, booming manner in a club, Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” playing in the background. It’s loud, the sub-woofer gets to show off, and it’s mixed impressively around the sound field, pretty much placing you right there in the middle of it all. Outside of that scene, similar scenes, and handful of other moments involving a group of people, the audio sticks primarily to the fronts, with natural movement between the speakers when appropriate, and mild bass. Dialogue is clear and the track shows no distortion or damage.
In all, it’s effective and suiting, the film mostly reflective in nature, but when required it takes full advantage of your sound system.
Criterion’s edition doesn’t port any of Universal’s previous features over (all of which were standard promotional/PR material) but make room for several new features. However, some material that would seem obvious to include is missing.
Criterion does include an academic feature through a 15-minute interview with film scholar Kara Keeling, author of Queer Times, Black Futures, discussing the importance of the film, primarily in how it portrays its cinematically underrepresented characters (women who are queer and black) and their sexuality in a positive light. She looks at a few scenes and how they may subvert expectations compared to other films that have made it to the mainstream (specifically how the characters aren’t treated like victims) and also talks about the original short film and how that specific medium is an important way to get a message out.
The rest of the material focuses around the film’s production, including two new discussion (both recorded remotely), divided into members of the cast (featuring actors Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, and Aasha Davis), running 29-minutes, and crew (cinematographer Bradford Young, production designer Inbal Weinberg, producer Nekisa Cooper, and editor Mako Kamitsuna), running 39-minutes. Both also feature director Dee Rees and are moderated by film scholar Jacqueline Stewart (the two are wearing the same outfits in both, so I assume they were both done same day). Both conversations hint at the production feeling like a close-knit family, all clearly thrilled to have worked on the film, with everyone appearing to be excited to be sharing their stories from the time (with everyone shocked it’s been 10 years). Though both are great, I found myself gravitating more to the one featuring the crew since their stories revolve around getting the look and making their miniscule budget (apparently production design only had $5000 to work with) work. Each member shares what their respective duties were, how they went about keeping things on budget, and the innovations they brought to the project, like how Young was able to pull of the film’s incredible lighting (photos are also presented to show how the lighting was done). Between both there are details around the short film since some of the same people (cast and crew) worked on both, and there is some material around a Sundance Director’s Lab that Rees did while developing the script for the film. The crew discussion also reveals more around the difficulties in finding funding for the film, many insisting the film be made more “palatable” (translation: fewer black and/or gay characters) and I found Young’s details around the lighting of the film fascinating.
To accompany these interviews and to offer more focus on Rees herself, Criterion also includes a new interview between her and filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, Rees possibly in the Criterion offices and Parkerson calling in. Parkerson asks the director a few questions about her background (Rees had been in corporate marketing for years, and I find that leap really wild and awesome for some reason) along with more about the film specifically, and here Rees is able to flesh out more details around the production and its development. It’s mentioned the script had originally been 140-pages long, but through doing the 2007 short film of the same name and the Sundance Director’s Lab she was able to find more of a focus and trim out the fat, so to speak, better finding the heart of the story.
And this is where the features disappoint. Throughout the features on the disc we do glean a lot of about the development of the script through stories around the various workshops, the short film, and more, with footage thrown in to highlight the discussions, yet oddly the disc doesn’t include any of this material on its own. I immediately thought of Criterion’s edition for Me and You and Everyone We Know, which went into a painstaking amount of detail to show every facet behind Miranda July’s development of that film, even including large sections of footage from her own Sundance Director Labs and her short film work that would play into the film in some way, and I was stunned this disc doesn’t go the same route.
The short film is probably the most surprising exclusion, and I can't figure out why it wouldn't be included other than Rees wants the feature to stand on its own; she does describe the short as just being a thesis, so that would make sense. At the very least we do get samples from the film through the features that do appear on the disc, with comparisons between it and the feature. The samples provided also highlight some key differences. For instance, it appears the short focuses more on a sex toy the main character, Alike, buys (or has her friend buy) and the trouble it ends up bringing, whereas the feature treats this storyline like a minor detail never to be brought up again once the film moves on. Also, it appears Alike's mother and father have had certain personality traits swapped around. It’s also interesting to see how the films look similar, the two appearing to even share some of the same compositions and framing, but Rees and Young get more ambitious and experimental when it comes to the feature. Though getting the entire film would have been an excellent addition, the film still receives a good degree of its own coverage through the various interviews, so there is that at least.
Getting past that, the release finishes off with an insert featuring a short essay by writer Cassie da Costa, covering the film, its reception, the poetry that appears in it, and Rees’ other work. All-around, I was still quite happy with the material, and the supplements do a fine enough job covering the film’s production, its impact, and importance. It just felt things could have gone that extra step and they didn't.
The obvious supplements are missing and the master hasn't aged particularly well, but the disc still offers an engaging overview of the film's production and touches on the importance of representation in cinema