Dear White People, The Movie: Go See It

31 Oct

dear white people

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.



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9 Responses to “Dear White People, The Movie: Go See It”

  1. Sherry Gordon October 31, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, Wendy Jane! Wow, my sweet white friend and sister! Wow and Wow, sister! What a magnificent and inspiring blog post article this is of yours, as well as your other astute and sagacious ones! This is just brilliant, sister! I truly love and like how you wrote on and described this great movie, Dear White People, and your very sincere and loving, caring, sensitive, and heartfelt feelings about this movie. I don’t at all think that you spoke out of turn or out of your place, and I for sure for always as well don’t think you wrote on this from a place of white privilege, sister! You have such a dearest and darling, precious heart that is so, so very genuine in your love of us as black people, and also your dear love for black education, music, entertainment and culture in general! You are indeed so, so very for real, Wendy Jane, sisterfriend! I just so, so love and cherish how you wrote on and described this very fine and excellent, progressive movie! I have not seen this yet, but I plan on seeing this superbly super movie as soon as possible! It sounds just so wonderful and fantabulous! I am so, so happy, glad, and thrilled that you got to see this, Wendy Jane! Even though I have not seen it yet, I am going to read your and other people’s comments about it because I am just bursting with excitement and curiosity to read your splendid comments, Wendy Jane, and other people’s comments. It won’t spoil my pleasure in the movie once I do see it even though I would end up knowing the ending (SMILE!).

    Wendy Jane, you are such an incredibly wonderful white woman and true friendsister as an ally in your allyship in your solidarity as an anti-racist! I just know your great and dearest, sincere heart and love for us as black people (and how you love all other people as well). I remember so, so very well your very first blog post article with your dearest Valentine’s to all of us as black people! This so, so moving and touching Valentine’s to all of us as black people brought me and moved me to tears because it moved and touched me so, so very much, and went straight to my very heart! You are so, so very for real, sister, so, so very sincere! I so love and cherish you for this, for you, and your dearest and darling love of us as black people, and how you cherish us and black culture in every way! Your fantabulous blog post articles, and other marvelous writings, give me such immense joy and eternal blessings, and go straight to my heart! You seem like such a spiritual woman, Wendy Jane, and you so, so very much help me to have an increased faith, hope, and positive optimism, and you help me in my spiritual walk with our Good God in proving me such immense blessings in my very heart, soul, and spirit! I thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for always, Wendy Jane, so, so very kindly, dearly, and deeply, and also for being my friend, my sister, and my ally, and a friend, sister, and ally to all of us as black persons, other nonwhite persons, and ultimately for all persons!

    What a great joy this great blog post article of yours gave me, sister! I am going to have to see this movie as soon as I can! Please have a very Happy Friday, my sweet white and Jewish sisterfriend, Wendy Jane, and have a fun-filled and fantastically fabulous weekend!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

    Your lesbian black sisterfriend in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Sherry Gordon October 31, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

      Dear Wendy Jane,

      Hi, there, again, Wendy Jane! Oops, I almost forgot to say, Happy Halloween! Have much, much, much fun, fun, fun, and celebrate!

      Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

      Your lesbian black sisterfriend in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Wendy Jane October 31, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

      Hi Sherry,

      You always flatter me to the highest degree, which I am grateful for, and you make my heart very happy with all that you say, but please don’t feel like you have to always praise me–I don’t want my head to grow too big that it doesn’t fit through the front door:)

      I can’t wait for you to see the movie and to hear what you think about it since you are so thoughtful and pay attention to every detail.

      Thanks for the Halloween and weekend wishes. I wish you the same my sisterfriend in solidarity.

      Wendy Jane

      • Sherry Gordon November 2, 2014 at 10:05 am #

        Dear Wendy Jane,

        Hi, there, my sweet white and Jewish friend and sister, Wendy Jane! Wendy Jane, I am so, so very happy and excited!!!!! I have great news!!!!! I just found out that this great movie, Dear White People, is playing where I live in Iowa City, Iowa right now! I am so, so very thrilled!!!!! I am going to go see it this afternoon! I just can barely wait, sister, I am so bursting with excitement!!!!! I will for sure write to you and the others at your fantastic, fabulous, and fabulous blog post website to let you know my impressions of this great and cool movie, but I can tell that I will have all sorts of superlatives, praises, and compliments for it! Speaking of all of the very, very many and overflowing superlatives, praises, and compliments I have for always for you, my sweet, precious, and dearest white sisterfriend, Wendy Jane, I will try not to praise you as much my friend and sister but it won’t be easy (SMILE!). I want you to be able to fit your head through the door of your house so that you can be able to enter and exit your house(SMILE!). My precious friendsister, I have so, so many heartfelt praises for you because you have uplifted my very heart, soul, and spirit! My friend and sister, you have provided for me and empowered me by letting me have a voice to be heard and to be listened to as the black woman who I am. I am just so eternally blessed by you and appreciative of you, sister, because you have been so gracious and kind towards me and letting me share so profusely and for me to be heard and listened to in having a voice. I have not always been able to have a voice as a black woman, and a lesbian black woman, not only in terms of racism, oppressions, and discrimination by some (not all, though) white people and heterosexual people, but also I feel often shut down by other black people who often get upset with me and do not agree with me and my many feelings, opinions, and viewpoints. You have been just so gracious and generous toward me in letting me share so, so very much and so openly with you and on your spectacular blog post website, Wendy Jane! I feel so blessed and appreciative toward you, sister, that I tend to overflow with very, very many superlatives, praises, and compliments for you! Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for always, my white and Jewish friend and sister, Wendy Jane, for being my friend and sister! You have given me a voice when I have not been and am not always been heard and listened to and given a voice by some other people! This and you, sisterfriend, mean so, so very much to me, and I cherish you and this!

        Please have a very Happy Sunday, my friendsister,
        wendy Jane! I will let you know what I think about this great movie, sister! I pray, wish, and hope for you a very blessed Sunday, sister!

        Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

        Your lesbian black sisterfriend in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

        • Wendy Jane November 2, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

          Hi Sherry,

          You truly touched my heart with your sentiments here–I think I didn’t know what this space was creating for you exactly, and I am so touched that you are saying that this blog has created a welcoming space for you to share your voice. I am honored that you spend your time here, and that you do share so openly and honestly about your own feelings about race, gender, sexuality, and so openly relate your experiences growing up that relate to the different blog topics that have been posted. That is so generous of you, and I appreciate the dialogue you create here for me and others. You have let me in to your world, and I thank you so, so much for that.

          And, I don’t mean any criticism when I said you don’t have to praise me so much–it sure does make me feel good, and really lifts my spirits every time I hear from you. I love the connection that we have been able to make here, and it is that I do just want to keep my head swelling in check:) You are a special and brave woman.

          I am thrilled that you are going to see Dear White People today and can’t wait to hear what you thought about it.

          Wendy Jane

          • Sherry Gordon November 3, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

            Dear Wendy Jane,

            Hi, there, Wendy Jane! Please don’t you worry-I didn’t take your words as criticism at all, my sisterfriend! Sister, you truly touched my heart with what you wrote, too! Just went straight to my heart, my friendsister, Wendy Jane! Wow and wow, my sweet white friend and sister, Wendy Jane! Wow and wow! I ABSOLUTELY LOVED just like I knew that I would this great and empowering film, Dear White People!!!!!! It was absolutely fantastic, fabulous, powerful, and fantabulous! I was so, so very happy and thrilled to see as I looked around that there were many white people in the audience. The audience was made up of mainly white people, with some black persons and maybe a couple of other nonwhite people. I could sure relate to many of the characters in the film. I could relate best to Lionel. I SO remember at my original and first college when I was a student at the University Of Michigan how isolated and alone I felt back then in the early 1980s as a very young lesbian black woman who at that time was so, so very petrified of being gay and not dealing with it too well. I could relate to Lionel and how he felt apart from and isolated from the other black students and how he felt they wouldn’t accept him not only because he was gay but also because he felt that they misjudged him for supposedly not being “black enough.” Lionel and his character and story, Wendy Jane, just went straight to my heart! I could relate to his social awkwardness and how he was perceived as awkward and nerdy-just made me think of my college days when I was a lot younger at Michigan. I loved how Lionel got in touch with his anger over racism at the racist party towards the end of the movie that Kurt Fletcher was throwing. I feel that Lionel constructively connected to his anger and how wrong this party was, and I like, too, how he emboldened the other black students to take action and to stand up for themselves.

            I was so hurt for Sophia Fletcher when she realized that her relationship with Troy Fairbanks was not going to work and that it was ending! Sophia seemed so, so very incredibly sad and heartbroken! My heart broke with her and my heart ached for her!

            I could relate to Sam White in some ways. When I was a student at Michigan I was for a time the President of my dorm and also the President of my dorm’s African-American Student Council. I can relate to Sam’s angst when I think of my much younger self back then, and how she was so pressured and expected to be a perfect example of being blacker than thou and so powerful. At Michigan, I was in love with my best friend who was a white woman, and the black students in my dorm and on my dorm’s African-American Council were upset with me that I had a best friend who was a white woman. They really gave me hard a time! Also, when I would go to the African-American Council meetings in my dorm, and at the wider meetings of all of the African-American Councils from all of the other dorms on campus, it hurt my heart so how many of the other black students would go on and on about how they hated and disliked white people, and those meetings were just a big gripe session to talk meanly about white people. I defended my best friend and our friendship, and got so hassled. I didn’t feel right about being at those meetings with such hateful and prejudicial talk when the then love of my life was my best friend who was a white woman, so I resigned as the President of my dorm’s African-American Student Council. I just couldn’t take it, Wendy Jane, because it hurt my heart so much because I loved my then best friend so much and to hear all of those hateful comments about white people when the woman I loved at the time was a white woman was too hurtful. I can relate to Sam White when I think of my much younger self, and how she was pressured to be ultra black, and how some of the black students didn’t like that she had a relationship with someone who was white. Wow, I could really connect to Sam White in these ways! My friendship with my best friend at Michigan didn’t work out. We had a misunderstanding back then, and she ended the friendship with me which broke my heart into a zillion pieces!!!!!!

            I could relate to Troy Fairbanks and the pressures he was under as a member of the black middle class, and how his father as the Dean had so many unreasonable and unrealistic expectations for him. I felt the same way in how my parents treated Joe, Tony, and myself, that they as our parents were so superficially into maintaining appearances and keeping up that superficial facade as a part of the black middle class. I could even connect to CoCo and how she felt constrained by her parents to be the perfect child of the black middle class. Wow, their parents and family situations made me think of what I had to deal with with my parents and family and how I felt constrained to conform to so called perfect standards of the black middle class.

            Wow, my dearest, precious, and sweet white friend and sister, Wendy Jane, wow! And wow and wow! What a great movie this was, and so absolutely impressive! It was very well written and well acted! I give this marvelous movie five gold stars and an A+!!!!!! I liked how in more of a general sense as well that it touched on the angst of the black students and how each in their own way struggled to connect and define what their blackness meant to them, and how they would enact their blackness in a way that would truly be authentic for them. I can remember as a much younger black person and woman, and lesbian black woman, in my own way having these questions and that disturbing angst as I struggled to find myself and my own unique identity!

            Wendy Jane, I pray, wish, and hope for you my sweet white and Jewish sisterfriend that you are having an absolutely marvelous Monday! I pray, wish, and hope for you, sister, that you have a wondrously wonderful week, Wendy Jane! You are such a joy to me and my eternal blessings, my dearest friendsister! I am so, so incredibly glad and grateful that we are friends and sisters, Wendy Jane!

            Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

            Your lesbian black sisterfriend in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

          • Wendy Jane November 4, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

            Hi Sherry,

            Wow, thank you so much for sharing about your experiences in college that paralleled some of the protagonists of the film. I see you didn’t have it easy at all–relating to how Lionel felt as coming out as gay-not being comfortable in that, and not being accepted by your black peers for not just that but for, as Lionel was told, not being black enough. I’m sorry for the conflict and tension over your white girlfriend, and for the heartbreak of that young break up. Having our heart broken during those years was like the end of the world.

            I do appreciate you sharing your experiences here and your reflections on the film, and hope your courage and honesty will give others the inspiration to share as well.

            Thank you sisterfriend in solidarity,
            Wendy Jane

  2. Vickie November 2, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Saw this in my in box a few days ago – finally got the chance to open it (you know it’s my “busy time” of the year 🙂 – Great Read!!!!

    • Wendy Jane November 2, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

      thanks, Vickie! I know it is your busy time–looks like you two are having lots of fun!

      Wendy Jane

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