Review of Pariah Directed by Dee Rees

Pariah poster
Pariah, 2011, 1h 27m
Directed by Dee Rees

Reviewed by Iam Monroe

Studhood is something scarcely depicted in lesbian media, let alone depicted in media that explores the personal relationships of studs. Pariah is a true rarity in its portrayal of the turbulent, tender, and othering experiences and relationships that characterize coming of age as a young Black stud. While similar to butch identity, in regards to being a subculture of the broader lesbian community with a primary element of masculinity, stud identity differs by being exclusive to and influenced by Black American cultures.

The film follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a shy, sensitive seventeen-year-old high school stud and aspiring poet living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with her mother (Kim Wayans), father (Charles Parnell), and younger sister (Sahra Mellesse). Alike is not out to her family, so she lives a “double life,” donning her desired masc get-ups outside of the house while remaining closeted at home. While Alike has a close friend and confidant in Laura (Pernell Walker), a fellow and more experienced Black stud, her mother disapproves of her company and forces Alike to begrudgingly befriend Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of her coworker, instead.

Despite their differences and initial reluctance, Alike falls hard for Bina. Their arranged meetups become enjoyable hangouts as they bond over similar alternative rock tastes. Alike forms the impression that what they have is real and mutual. But Bina, unlike Alike, still has hang-ups about her sexual orientation. “I’m not like, gay gay,” she says to her the morning after they spend the night together. Alike is crushed, and rightfully so. The first person she develops a genuine romantic and sexual connection with has easily shrugged off her feelings. Even when Alike visibly looks hurt, the only words Bina offers as comfort are, “You don’t have to tell anybody, okay?” More concerned with the possibility of sullying her reputation, she leaves Alike to bear the brewing storm of heartbreak alone. Granted, Bina is a young teenager who is still figuring things out, but so is Alike in her search for love and acceptance. Coming out is not easy for young Black girls, but in contrast to Bina, Alike has already decided that she wants to be true to herself. Soon after coming home, she comes out to her mother, solidifying her place in the world as a stud at the cost of losing her place in the family. Alike and Bina are in different stages of their journeys, which leads to their unfortunate end.

Pariah is a word meaning “a person without status,” “a rejected member of society,” or “an outcast.” Alike is made a pariah through the multiple facets of oppression she experiences as a Black masculine lesbian. The intersection of being Black, a woman, and a lesbian subjects her to mistreatment from her mother, followed by the eventual removal from her family, alienation from her community and peers, and the necessity to assimilate for survival. Laura, like Alike, is a pariah. Though much of her personal life isn’t explicitly explored, we know she is turned away from her household (presumably because of her sexuality), has dropped out of high school, and now lives with her sister, Candy, while working at a restaurant to pay the bills. Estrangement from families is not an uncommon reality for Black lesbians. Black families already carry generational trauma and a lack of generational wealth, so the traumatic violence of being removed from one's blood family only compounds those struggles. Even though Alike’s family is well off, her sexuality puts her at risk of losing support. Pariahs constantly face a harsher world.

In light of this reality, this movie profoundly shows the beautiful, mutual understanding between these two studs–these two pariahs. When Alike leaves home after being viciously attacked by her mother for coming out, it is Laura who saves her. Laura, who has gone through the same experience, is the one to comfort Alike and soothe her at her lowest. Laura cradles Alike’s head in her lap, one hand caressing her braids, the other downing a bottle of alcohol. Unlike Bina, she is the friend who sees, knows, feels, and understands Alike’s pain, even if they, too, have their differences. Alike’s peers note that she is not as typically “hard” as other studs, especially in comparison to Laura, but Laura loves and helps her all the same, and Alike’s expression, poetic aspirations, and sensitive nature do not make her any less of a stud. As Alike says when facing her mother, “There’s nothing wrong with me!”

Iam Monroe (they/them) is a writer, reader, digital artist, and Sinister Wisdom intern currently residing in Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas.

Review of Poor Things Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Poor Things poster
Poor Things, 2023, 2h 21m
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Reviewed by Henri Bensussen

Emma Stone won a Best Actress Oscar for this exceptional movie. Nominated for all the top “Bests,” Poor Things also won for Best Production Design, Costume Design, and Make-up/Hair Styling. The movie is based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, which the L.A. Times Book Review called a “liberating vision of sexuality” told with “scathing wit.” Publishers Weekly called it a “work of inspired lunacy.” The screen play, written by Tony McNamara, builds on these tropes. Emma Stone, a co-producer, inhabits the role of Bella Baxter to the limits of current cinematography.

I am drawn to Victorian novels with their dark secrets and fraught romances, and movies with strong women protagonists. I liked the outrageous, comical The Favourite by the same director, also featuring Emma Stone. In this film, she becomes Bella, portraying so naturally her behavior and emotions that I felt like I was there, watching from just out of the camera’s range, pondering the oddness of this child, watching her grow into a young woman. She reminded me of my own growing-up years, with a girlfriend who was always ready for a race on roller skates or putting on a play. Poor Things is everything wrapped up together, a send-up of Frankenstein’s Monster, Jane Eyre, Little Women, and Northanger Abbey.

The Scottish surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is lauded for his faultless way of sewing parts of people together and beautifully restoring them to life. At home we see various odd animals running happily about his garden: a pig’s head with a goat’s middle and a calf’s back end, say, or a duck with a giraffe’s neck. At the head of a long dining table sits Bella Baxter, Godwin’s daughter. She has the stature of a young woman yet acts like a young child. It is all strange, as if we’re in Alice’s Wonderland. No harsh voices, no big dramatic scenes. This is the lively garden of Dr. Baxter, featuring his sewn-together farm animals, and a family enjoying their calm and matter-of-fact life.

Bella was born when Godwin dragged a pregnant suicide out of the river and into his surgery, substituting the brain of her fetus for her own dead one. Over the course of the film we see Bella’s new brain take over as she grows from babyhood to girlhood, learning about her own body and the joys of masturbation. By the age of twelve she’s reading the medical books in her father’s library. Bella is not formally educated, but is allowed to educate herself, the way Mary Shelley did, and as many of us “book worms” did.

A curious child, Bella retains her curiosity throughout her life. As her brain catches up with her body, she attracts Godwin’s student Max (Ramy Youssef), a kind and caring man who offers marriage, and then the dastardly Duncan (Mark Ruffalo). Duncan, a rich lawyer, gambler, and drinker, offers sex and a trip to Europe. Bella agrees to marry Max, but chooses to go with Duncan so she can learn more about the world. In the many naked scenes that follow, Bella enjoys sex and often wants it. These scenes, directed by Emma Stone, are done so naturally there was no sense for me of their being pornographic. Gothic moments ensue as they travel to many countries. She wanders freely among people without any shyness–imitating, learning, curious. The audience, watching alongside Bella, sees the people as she does.

When Bella discovers poverty, she feels compassion for the poor and gives away all of Duncan’s money. Penniless, stranded in Paris, Duncan falls apart while Bella discovers that as a prostitute she can earn money. At the brothel she’s courted by the Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) and falls in love with another worker there, Toinette (Suzy Bemba), until an ill Godwin calls her home to his deathbed. There, as she prepares to marry Max, the film takes another twist. Bella learns she has a husband (Christopher Abbott), the husband she escaped by drowning. She gives herself to him because that is what wives do.

He brings her to his castle, threatens genital mutilation, and takes up his gun when she tries to leave. She fights back, causing him to pass out after shooting himself in the foot. This leads to the final scene, a hilarious moment for me and many other women in the audience. Now a successful surgeon herself, following in Godwin’s footsteps, Bella is at home in the garden with her lover Toinette, served by the faithful Max, and with her former husband changed into an odd animal with the brain of a goat. Many men in the audience of the theater I was at were not smiling, but seemed puzzled by this ending.

Henri Bensussen writes on themes of inter-personal/inter-species relationships, aging, and the comic aspects of the human condition from the viewpoint of a birder, biologist, and gardener. Currently, a book-length memoir is her focus, and she continues to publish poetry and creative non-fiction.

Review of “Nelly & Nadine” Directed by Magnus Gertten

Nelly & Nadine poster
“Nelly & Nadine,” 2022, 1h 32m
Directed by Magnus Gertten

Reviewed by Emily L. Quint Freeman
© March 2024

Almost Lost Forever: A True Story of Love and Survival

When the extraordinary Swedish documentary “Nelly & Nadine,” directed by Magnus Gertten, was released in 2022, it was featured in over 100 festivals and received more than 20 international awards, mainly in Europe. Thankfully in the US, it is now widely available on various streaming services. For me, it was one of those films that stays with you, makes you think, makes you remember, makes you well up with tears.

“Nelly & Nadine” is a true story about two women who became lovers at the most harrowing place and time—a concentration camp during WWII. Somehow, they survived. If it weren’t for a benevolent granddaughter named Sylvie, their story would have been lost.

This documentary spoke to the heart of my own struggles and experiences as a lesbian of Jewish heritage. As a child, I knew my family’s immigrant story, how they crammed onto ships headed to America from eastern Europe during the early 20th century. Those that stayed behind never visited us, their lives passed from view.

I was over sixty when I first visited Prague and went to the historic Jewish cemetery. Written on a memorial wall were the family names of Jews who were transported and killed at the Terezin concentration camp. My eyes scrolled down the lengthy list and stopped short at one name: Rappaport, the family name of my mother’s father. I gasped; an icy chill went down my spine. If I hadn’t gone to that old graveyard, their fate would have been lost to me.

“Nelly & Nadine” begins at a remote farmhouse in Northern France.

The elderly Sylvie goes to the attic and opens dusty boxes, which contain her dead grandmother’s diary, letters, photographs, and home movies. She and her husband became the custodian of the boxes after her mother’s death. They faithfully kept them for many decades, as Sylvie had fond memories of her grandmother, Nelly Mousset-Vos (1906-1987), who had been an opera singer of considerable talent.

All Sylvie knew of Nelly was the kind, gray-haired woman with the wonderful voice who came to spend Christmas holidays with her French family, traveling all the way from her home in Caracas, Venezuela. After the end of WWII, Nelly moved there with a woman named Nadine. Sylvie was told that Nadine was just her grandmother’s friend and housemate.

At some point, Sylvie was curious; and in one box, she found Nelly’s diary. She read only a few lines before it was too painful for her to continue. Her grandmother never spoke to any family member about her two years in various Nazi concentration camps, but there it was all laid out in words. Finally, she dared to go further, and what she found was astounding.

Sylvie decided to share Nelly’s archive, so this documentary could be made. Researchers, historical recordkeepers, and friends of Nelly and Nadine helped to flesh out their true story. As the story was unearthed bit by bit, Sylvie participated in the key interviews and was shown the documents. She came to appreciate her grandmother not only as a remarkable person, but also as a hero of France.

In the 1930s, Sylvie knew that Nelly performed in cities all over Europe, and that she had two children (her marriage ended in divorce). She learned that after the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, her grandmother joined the Resistance as part of a spy ring. In 1943, Nelly was arrested in Paris by the Gestapo and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The prisoners were forced to do hard labor under terrible conditions; if they couldn’t, they were killed.

Old photographs and home movies revealed what the mysterious Nadine looked like. She was a tall, elegant figure with short hair, often dressed in trousers, a shirt and tie. Born in Madrid, Nadine Hwang (1902-1972) was the daughter of a high-ranking Chinese diplomat and a Belgian mother. She was educated in multiple languages. Nadine moved to Paris in 1933 and became part of the feminist/lesbian circle around Natalie Barney (1876-1972). A playwright, poet and novelist, Barney hosted a salon of notable artists and writers at her Left Bank home. Nadine became Barney’s chauffeur and one of her casual women lovers. Nelly’s memoir stated that Nadine helped at-risk people escape from Occupied France to Spain, which led to her arrest and transportation to Ravensbrück in May 1944.

After Nelly and Nadine met in the camp, their relationship became intimate and passionate; and against all odds, their love for each other kept them alive. They were separated when Nelly was later transported to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Forced labor in the stone quarry usually meant death, and Nelly was close to the edge at this camp. Her intense memories of Nadine kept her going.

The movie shows a poignant clip of a film taken in 1945 when a group of liberated prisoners from Ravensbrück arrived in Sweden. You see the faces of the survivors deliriously happy to be alive and start their recovery. Nadine was in that crowd. Hers was the only sad, tense face. At the time, no one understood the reason. Nadine was thinking of Nelly. Was she alive or dead?

By some miracle, Nelly had survived, and they found each other again. After the war, what followed was the story of so many gay men and women before the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. I know because I was around then.

1965. I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley when I phoned my father from the dorm. I told him that I wasn’t returning home for the summer. I’d met someone I wanted to be with, someone I loved. Her name was Caitlin. My father exploded, calling me a child, an infatuated fool. He told me to come home, or all financial support would end. I went with Caitlin, and my life became one of desperate struggle to stay in school and graduate. But I did.

The price of being honest and true to oneself was so high that gay people had to make heartrending decisions. Some had secret lovers under the cover of a straight marriage. For career and paycheck, one’s real private life wasn’t ever spoken about at work. Coming out meant stiff societal consequences (even criminal in the case of men). On the streets, fluid gender or flamboyant clothes raised the risk of being beaten or killed. Despite the passage of gay marriage and wider acceptance, it’s still tough out there for so many.

Nelly and Nadine were determined to live free and honest lives. Staying in Europe was too painful after what they experienced in the camps and too close to Nelly’s family. They picked Caracas, Venezuela -- it was sunny and inexpensive with available jobs for educated, multilingual Europeans. The home movies showed them relaxing and entertaining their queer friends. They lived as partners until Nadine died in 1972.

Especially moving was the way Nadine filmed Nelly at their Caracas apartment. She caught Nelly deep in her own thoughts. Her face reflected a profound inner sadness, as her time in the camps could never be forgotten. One can only imagine that those memories were crushing and tragic.

But she had Nadine, and they endured those memories together, always together. Love is love, that’s all and that's enough.

Emily L. Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir, Failure to Appear, Resistance, Identity and Loss (Blue Beacon Books) and non-fiction articles appearing in digital magazines including Salon, Narratively, Drizzle Review, Creation, The Mindful Word, The Gay & Lesbian Review, MockingOwl Roost, Syncopation Literary Journal, and Open Democracy.

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