October 27, 2014

Dear White People

Dear White People is a little gem of a movie, the feature debut of writer-director Justin Simien. It’s ostensibly a satire on race in academia (and America), in which Simien explores the experiences of four black students who attend the fictional Winchester University. If you have friends who say, “America can’t be racist anymore since we have a black President,” tell them to go see Dear White People. And go see it with them.

I was surprised that the multiplex showing Dear White People had given it a larger theater, not one of the tiny ones in the back where they normally stick little movies. Were they afraid that stashing it in one of the tiny houses might constitute racism? Or did they really expect a smart satire on race relations to be a packed house when—to quote the movie—“we live in a world in which there is a Big Mama’s House 3”?

The second thing that got me thinking before the movie even began was the coming attractions: They were all movies featuring black performers, all being marketed to black audiences (except for a Will Smith thriller that will surely be branded as a cross-over). I’ve never been more aware of the segregation in the movie theater than at the screening of Dear White People, especially in terms of marketing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the theaters themselves are always so segregated. And yet… I felt that I was seeing an alternate universe of movie trailers that are not shown before films where a mostly white audience is assumed.

So, here’s some tricky logic: Dear White People is a movie featuring a cast of mainly black people that purports to be a direct message to white people but is being marketed—at my local theater giant, at least—exclusively to black people. I assume this because the coming attractions are never accidental, never arbitrarily selected. Suddenly, it felt like the movie’s point was being made before it had even begun.

Dear White People is worth seeing, and not just because of its heavy, important subject matter. This is one of the first movies in recent memory that rejects the idea that there can only be one “black experience” in this country. The movie has a lot of bones to pick with the subtle racism of privileged white people, but it’s also determined to show us a multiplicity of stories, all about real human beings. And that’s where Dear White People really won me over, in its depiction of characters about whom I found myself really caring. They’re flawed, they have certain insecurities and fears, they’re funny, they’re alternately confident and confused, and ultimately just very human.

One of the main characters is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), whose big shock of afro is a constant source of amusement for white girls who want to play with it. Lionel isn’t sure how to tell them no, but he isn’t sure that giving himself a buzz cut will amount to anything more than selling out. Lionel’s main aspiration is to be a writer, but he’s being shuffled around campus because of incompatible roommates, one of whom gay-baits him to the point of genuine harassment. But when offered the option of living in the traditionally all-black fraternity, Lionel turns that down too. It’s just one more label, one more prefab identity that has been manufactured for him. I suppose in some ways Lionel is a bit of a hipster. But he doesn’t have the arrogance of a hipster. He’s trying to find out who he is, and afraid that “choosing” one particular identity over another might cause him future regret. He also just wants to be accepted, and he’s been burned so much in the past that he doesn’t trust any of the groups being marketed to him.

Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) is another student, and the deliberately provocative host of a college radio show—bearing the title of the movie—in which she satirizes the “black experience” at Winchester. Sam feels a particular burden to fight back against both white ignorance and black acceptance of the new cultural norms that have calcified within a seemingly fair new system, one that allows a black man to be a dean, so long as he defers to the white president. Sam doesn’t make friends easy. Even some of the black students tell her she’s too extreme, too “black.” So she vents her frustrations with a wry sense of humor on her radio show. (She says things like, “the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two; Sorry, but your weed-man, Tyrone, does not count.”) Yes, Sam has a chip on her shoulder, but it’s understandable in a world where black people are always expected to initiate the race conversation and white people simply ignore it until it becomes a problem that might negatively affect them.

As for the new system at Winchester University, the black dean—played by Dennis Haysbert—has a son named Troy (Brandon Bell), also a student at Winchester, who’s been raised to be the poster child of the prestigious black over-achiever. He’s got political aspirations, and is running for re-election as head of Armstrong-Parker, the black house on campus. But when Sam unexpectedly defeats him in the election, he sets his sight on becoming class president, and proving to the white hegemony that he’s not interested in rocking the boat like Sam. The drama comes to a head when a frat house throws a party encouraging guests to dress in stereotypically black apparel, and includes snacks such as fried chicken, watermelon, and “purple drank.” (These, mind you, are inspired by real stories in college campuses across the country.)

There are moments when you feel the many intertwining narratives getting away from Justin Simien. He has so many stories, so many characters, that often they feel interrupted by each other. I wanted more time with Lionel than I got, more development in him perhaps. And even Sam sometimes felt relegated to the background so that the movie could tackle other subjects, other characters. But there’s a kind of gleeful recklessness to Dear White People that we haven’t seen much of lately. It’s as if Justin Simien had somehow mixed the styles of Spike Lee and John Waters, giving us a Do the Right Thing-Hairspray combination set in modern times.

Indeed, it’s hard not to notice a kinship to the films of Spike Lee. The camera angles—often slightly off—capture that same anger that fuels Do the Right Thing. And the sheer exuberance of the characters and the way Simien sometimes packs lots of faces into one single frame—gives Dear White People a very in-your-face flavor that both Lee and Waters are so adept at creating. But it’s also good-natured in a way viewers might not expect. White people going to see Dear White People shouldn’t feel threatened by this movie (unless they should…), because it’s really about these specific characters’ various awakenings as they navigate what remains a hard subject in public life. That’s not to say that white people are off the hook from seeing the mirror turned on ourselves. The movie makes no apologies for demanding a conversation about race. But I found Simien’s pointed humor delightful and well-timed, not offensive or one-sided.  

Maybe the biggest selling point for me was that the friend I dragged to see this movie—who was very skeptical about it—came out liking it. Moreover, the five of us in the theater all seemed to enjoy it. But it’s sad to think that if the movie playing that night were Big Mama’s House 4, the theater would have been packed. Dear White People might appear to be medicine for us, and yet, it’s essential viewing for people who care about questions of race in America. It’s also essential viewing for people who want fresh, energetic, funny narratives from filmmakers who refuse to give us the same old thing.

With Teyonah Parris, Kyle Gallner, Marque Richardson, Justin Dobies, Brittany Curran, Peter Syvertsen, and Brandon Alter. 

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