Dear White People: Don’t be a white person’s voice trying to critique a movie made with a black person’s voice and point-of-view.
Okay, that was not said in the movie, but I recently read statements author Junot Diaz wrote about writers of color at predominately white college writing programs who are constantly being critiqued by white students and professors who do not validate, or acknowledge a person of color’s point-of-view. Critiques included comments like being told their characters weren’t black enough, or didn’t speak in an authentic black or Latino dialect. I don’t want to compare apples to oranges–books to films, but I think they relate to one another, and the point I want to make before I share my experience of watching Justin Simien’s movie Dear White People, is that I am not here as a critic, or reviewer of a film or book made by a black artist. I am here to share about my experience of watching this movie through the lens of being a (much) older than college age white woman.
The film Dear White People is the debut feature film of writer/director Justin Simien. The story unfolds at the fictitious Winchester University, a prestigious Ivy League looking school, defined by typical college campus groups. There’s the spoiled, white bad boys who publish the satirical Pastiche, akin to the Harvard Lampoon, there’s the cool kids, the intellectuals, the LGBT community, and there are the group of black students who primarily live in a residence deemed for black students. and seem in their portrayal to be split between the bourgeois and the activists. With its 19th-century charm and revered dining hall, the residence is the hub of black life on campus–the black life that manages to exist there anyway.
That is the conflict, which drives one of the film’s protagonists, Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson), to create a campus radio program called Dear White People, in which she calls white people out on their micro-aggressions that black people have to endure, and which she is tired of.
In cinematic shots cutting between Sam’s radio show and white and black college students on campus, we see white students either wince, roll their eyes, or smirk as they hear Sam deliver:
Dear White People: If you are dating someone black just to piss your parents off, that is racist.
Dear White People: Giving my opinion does not make me an angry black person.
and the comical:
Dear White People: You have Instagram. You like to go on hikes. We get it.
Sam is upset over the lack of attention given to black life on campus despite there being a black Dean at the college. The Dean, played by actor and producer, Dennis Haysbert, also famous for his Allstate Insurance commercials, is amicable, but tentative to rock the boat. Through her radio show and discussions with students in the Black Students’ Union, Sam shows her desire to put a stop to a looming change–the proposed passing of a randomization housing law on campus which would do away with the preservation of the black students’ Armstrong Parker Residence Hall, and thereby further disperse black community life on campus.
A reluctant activist, Sam decides to run for Residence Hall Leader against another leading protaganist, Troy Fairbanks (played by Brandon Bell), the handsome, charismatic, and driven current hall leader, who happens to be the son of the Dean. Surprised when she actually wins the election, Sam is thrown into being seen as the Great Black Hope for the more progressive black student body.
The complexity of the plot, and more so the complexity of the layers of things going on in regards to race, develops as the movie goes on. Troy’s girlfriend is white and the daughter of the college President. She makes clueless comments like asking a black student whether her hair “is weaved” and hypersexualizes her relationship with Troy in a bedroom scene. Troy feels pressured by his father to succeed, to behave in a conservative manner, as clearly the Dean had to do to get to where he is. In one scene we learn of the even more intricate layered relationship between the Dean and the President. They went to the same school, the Dean did much better in school while the President barely got by, but their career roles are set, defined not only by stature of the higher title given to the lower achieving white male, but by, as the Dean says, a few $100,000 in salary as well.
Another important character, Colandrea “Coco” Conners, is a black female student who doesn’t want to be identified with anything ‘hood, as she tells a reality TV show producer who visits the school to scout for prospective new stars. She prefers white men, spends more time with white students, and has her own blog. Then, there’s the likable by white people, but not by black people, Lionel Higgins (played by Tyler James Williams). Lionel is a tall, lanky black student, a “nerd” with a tremendous afro that black students shun for being gay, and not “black enough”, and white students can’t seem to keep their hands out of his hair. Yes, another micro-aggression Simien wants to point out to us. Stop asking black people if you can touch their hair!
Dear White People is layered. I remember, without reading much, or watching the trailers beforehand, that I thought the film would be solely about the things white people do to black people that are wrong, racist, and that uphold the systems of racism and oppression. And it does do that to a degree, and this is the only place where I will say that I perhaps wished Simien treaded less carefully. Part of this journey of self-reflection with my blog centers on why I’ve been passionate about crossing over color lines, and have been attracted to black culture, and it has opened my eyes to how I as a white woman have not been above saying or doing things that speak to coming from a place of white privilege–the trying to show my ‘being down” with black music, the trying to show that “I’m not like those other white people that are racist,that don’t get it..” the “I went to a really integrated high school,…”. So, I wouldn’t have minded if Mr. Simien showed us more of that. And I know it’s not his job to educate me, but I wouldn’t have minded if he stuck it to us a little more.
We do witness a smaller, personal story of students feeling annoyed and oppressed by the everyday things white people say and do. We also see how that plays out in a much larger institutional way with the proposed housing law change, and the way black students’ and white students’ issues on campus are handled. We also get to see all the things that are seen as okay to say or do by white people, that we as whites don’t notice or think there is anything wrong with. The things we think we are cool enough to say since it’s 2014, and we are supposed to be living in this post-racial society. Things like when a white female student on the prestigious campus newspaper Lionel aspires to write for, says that he is “only technically black,” and in a very uncomfortable scene massages her fingers through Lionel’s afro. He sits passively accepting her touch, though you clearly sense he strongly wishes she’d stop. Or when the white, gay newspaper editor tells Lionel in a scene where he hits on him, “I want to eat you like a Hershey’s kiss.”
Yet, the film is as much about black people and their identity conflicts and ways of treating one another, and ways of moving in the world–ways that seem forced upon them due to generations of institutionalized and socialized forms of racism and racial construct. Samantha is bi-racial and sleeping with a white guy from her film class. Troy has to hold up appearances as the over-achieving black son of the college Dean, while hiding from his white girlfriend in his bathroom where he smokes pot and writes jokes. We also get to see him “codeswitch” at a gathering with the arrogant son of the college President. Troy loses his conservative speech in favor of what the white college guys there mimic–black street slang. He wants to impress them so that he’ll get to let loose and write for their satirical paper. And then there is Coco, who has perhaps the most layered role as the fame-seeking, attractive and impeccably dressed black student, who seeks the company of white students, prefers white guys over black guys, tries to hide her South side of Chicago roots, yet is wounded and angered by the ignorance of her white counterparts at times. And, Lionel, well, you just want to hug Lionel for being the campus loner and sheepishly enduring all of the racist transgressions that are spewed at him.
I don’t want to be a spoiler by detailing the conflict scene where white students in the President’s son’s residence hall throw a controversial hip-hop party, nor the film’s ending, but wish I could because that is where I find myself wanting to have a dialogue about the many layers of race, racial stereotypes, and defending of varying perspectives that come up. Perhaps, those of you who have seen the film can dialogue in the comment section, and those of you who haven’t seen it yet can avoid reading the comments if you don’t want to know about the latter half of the film. I know there are things I am questioning about Sam’s feelings at the end of the film, and Coco’s interpretation of the party and aftermath that are very interesting to me, so I’m hoping to be able to have more discussions with readers and friends, black and white and other, to hear a variety of perspectives on Dear White People.
As a friend (who is white) who I saw the film with later said, it saddened her to think that this film, which was mostly a relationship/coming of age story, has to be perceived as so radical for the very fact that regular movies like this with primarily black casts are just not made. She added, that while clearly the average white American person still has a long way to go, progress will be made when we no longer talk about “black” or “white” films.
I say, go see Dear White People, because it is a good, well-made, well-acted and important film. And, then, please, let me know how you feel about it.
Photo Credit: www.filmguide.sundance.org