If you’re black and want to go to an HBCU, go watch “School Daze,” if you want to go to a PWI, go see “Dear White People.” If you’re white and have no idea what I’m talking about, go watch both movies.
Justin Simien’s directoral debut “Dear White People” was and is a refreshing look a race relations through the lens of a privileged millennial generation. Set at the predominantly white institution (PWI) of fictional Winchester University, this movie that premiered as an indie film at Sundance 2014 was billed as a satirical look at black and white race relations on a college campus. Earlier this year, “Dear White People” made major news with the memories of parties with “hip hop” as a theme or “Mexican” as a theme where white college kids took the opportunity to don black face and wear apparel that stereotypically caricatured whole races, ethnicities and nationalities. News of this movie seemed to coincide with black men at UCLA making a YouTube video decrying the lack of black males present on campus in 2013 and in February 2014, black UCLA law students made a video as well about their lack of numbers in the law program. The atmosphere was ripe for a movie such as this.
With the movie setting itself up to be viewed as a satire, the first characters that we’re introduced to such as Samantha White, Troy Fairbanks, Troy’s father, Dean Fairbanks, Reggie, President Fletcher, Colandrea (Coco) Conners and a few others all inhabit the typical two-dimensional role that you expect from satire. When anyone watches sketch comedy, especially good sketch comedy, writers use stereotypical tropes to let the jokes write themselves. A complete satire isn’t exactly the best space to provide character arcs nor is it often the easiest space to develop characters. Many artists, especially writers, infuse satirical quips or devices in their writing, be it a character or a story, into the backdrop of whatever it is they’re producing to make a directed point. Sometimes writers produce whole works of satire, such as Brave New World or 1984 that don’t have comedic aspects to it, but exist so fully in the ridiculous that one must take the piece of work with a grain of satirical salt–it’s meant to be provocative.
In that vein, Simien did his job. This movie has gotten people talking and it’s gotten us thinking, although maybe clumsily so. As a viewer, what began as a satirical comedy ended in a real-life drama. There was a presentation of all of the racial tropes: the super-black power crew lead by Samantha White and her side-kick Reggie; the Jezebel character, Colandrea Conners; the white privileged frat boys of Pinache headed by the president’s son Kurt; the-black-kid-who-could-never-live-up-to-his-father’s-standards dynamic with Troy and his father the Dean of Students–and then there was Lionel Higgins. Lionel was the character lynchpin that was removed thusly preventing the center from holding thereby unbalancing the movie enough to move it from satirical comedy to real-life drama. From the opening scenes, we knew how the story was going to end, so it was to be expected that there was going to have to be some movement away from the flatness of the characters, but how that was going to be achieved certainly remained to be seen. Lionel was the primary catalyst in this happening.
By the time Tyler James Williams’ character of Lionel had his second on-screen kiss with another male of the movie, I think I asked myself the question: when was the last time that I laughed? Easily the first third, maybe first half, of the movie was full of one-liners that resonated with black audience members and even others who probably knew exactly what the “Dear White People…” line was trying to say. Once the kissing scene had passed (and mind you, this was clearly directed to be a real non-satirical kiss), I settled myself into the fact that this was now a real-life drama. By the time the movie ends, characters have grown and they have changed. Ultimately, the movie has done what most dramas do by introducing some crisis that shifts the trajectory of a character or characters and provides a sense of clarity and maybe closure.
This movie was good because there has needed to be an answer to Spike Lee’s “School Daze” set at an HBCU. Lee’s movie released in 1988 chose the drama-comedy route that delivered a more cohesive punch than “Dear White People,” but nevertheless, I’m sure hundreds of black students that attend PWIs were more than happy to see their story told on the big screen. Regardless of cinematographic, structural and writing criticisms, the movie more than delivered when it came to displaying how black students choose to navigate the waters of blackness in predominantly white spaces. Understanding that there’s levels to this thing called blackness is a must needs for full comprehension of this movie
Perhaps the movie wouldn’t have gotten as much traction if it was just billed as a drama, and knowing this country and how people have responded to the sit-com “black-ish,” (just from the title alone), as a drama it probably wouldn’t have had as high of a profile as it does now. For my personal sensibilities, it would have made my critique of this movie much easier: either there would be clear, cookie cutter two-dimensional characters or there would have been characters with story arcs to discuss, rather than having to synthesize between the two.
The satirical nature of the movie was displayed by the ability to bring all of the sound bytes of race-talk that this country has endured since the election of President Obama and throw them all onto one character and give that character voice. Kurt Fletcher, for example, was the tea party meets right-wing evangelical meets privilege white boy character who had no problem taking a stance from that role. But then somewhere in the movie, those one-liners, those racially charged barbs stopped, and suddenly we were dealing with the characters’ emotions and their romantic relationships. Based on other reviews, I wasn’t the only one who was struggling with this shift.
Writer Alex van der Hoek wrote about his experience at a screening at USC of this movie prior to national release entitled “Black Homophobia Emerges at USC Screening of ‘Dear White People.'” He misses the entire point of the movie when he writes
As a white audience member, I missed the lesson about racism that I was looking for. There are some self-satisfied lines of the movie that are very intelligent, but they are said so quickly that you miss the message. The film’s focus seems to be spewing as many thesis statements about race as possible rather than showcasing the feelings of daily oppression that black people face. Furthermore, the white characters are so racist that as a white person you say “Well that’s not me. What can I do about that?” Simien seems to simply bring light to some of the idiocy black people have to endure, rather than offering up any solution. The film seems to say “Dear White People, some of you are idiots,” rather than, “Dear White People, here’s what you can do to help.
The film tried to say too much and, in doing so, said very little at all. If this is one of the smartest pieces of black media that we have, then the black audience deserves better, and not just with another story about slavery.”
This was a quote surrounded by a narrative that bespoke of the homophobic actions of audience members who ewwed and yucked at the scenes of male-to-male physical intimacy. This goes back to what I said earlier: no one really knew if they were watching a satire or a drama. A satirical piece usually has such an in-your-face conclusion, most people can walk away with very strong feelings. A drama on the other hand doesn’t always have to have such a clear cut conclusion that makes sense to all. Simien did not write and direct a film solely addressed to white people telling them what they need to do better, but clearly van der Hoek thought so.
Upon leaving the theater, in my immediate conversations with the handful of people who’ve seen this movie, we discovered that none of the heterosexual black males in the movie had a positive resolution by the end. Both black women, who were central to the movie had relatively clear evolutions from beginning to end, one of the white men had one, and Lionel, as a black gay male had an evolution as well. This doesn’t excuse the inane jackassery of the Morehouse College football team for acting the way they did in public, but I think it does bear in mind what happens when the fear of falling into the trap of heteronormative patriarchy in turn moves people who identify as heterosexual to the margins. I don’t know if this was intentional on Simien’s part or was this just the result of a first-time film project, but I was bothered by the lack of depth of Reggie’s character (we don’t even get a last name on him) and the fact that the audience only got a peak into Troy Fairbanks’ character’s motivation. This movie had no problem painting black men who identified as heterosexual as flat, two-dimensional persons not worthy of anything deeper than their outward appearances
But again, was this a satire or a drama?
If it’s the former, then I have no qualms, if it’s the latter, then it’s problematic. Stand-up comics, who operate heavily in satires, are a class of people who I believe occupy the oratorical space to be politically incorrect with the responsibility to make the listener think. Comedians like Richard Pryor to Chris Rock made it funny to laugh at racial insensitivity. However, to tell some of those jokes over a water cooler at work could run the risk of a write-up, maybe even termination. When I hear white gay males take offense to how members of the black community responded publicly to this movie it comes off as the Isaac Hayes syndrome: it’s okay to lampoon and laugh at other’s, but you can’t do it when it’s about my identity. Should we have been laughing at the absurdity of Lionel’s violent interaction with Kurt because it was just that absurd and hard to believe, or should we have been silent and cried because of the pain of it all? I’m not sure, by that time in the movie I couldn’t tell what type of movie I was watching.
In a day an age where conversations about race relations amongst the millennials leaves a lot to be desired, sensitivity toward members of the LGBTQ community is set in the veritable 19th century and in the black community at times that conversation is retrograded so much into antiquity it’s quite literally in biblical times. Many 18-22 year old males, irrespective of race, still can’t even have conversations about sexuality and sex without giggling like sixth graders, I wouldn’t expect much from a group of them in a dark movie theater where they can act in closeted anonymity. It’s going to take more than a sensitivity training class for the Maroon Tiger’s football team to come out of the darkness on this issue. If male college students already struggle with talking about having healthy relationships with 1) themselves and 2) with a partner of the opposite sex, it’s going to take some time to have a community where something as crazy as this doesn’t happen again. Nevertheless, these are the simple moments that give credence to heterosexual black males as nothing more than individuals of patriarchal privilege that fail to present themselves as more than just two-dimensional persons.
This movie was good. It was damn good. But it wasn’t great. I sincerely hope that this will not be the last of the work that Simien does. I think this movie showed magnificent talent on his behalf, and certainly on behalf of a new class of actors to the big screen. All of the acting was great, the direction of Simien came forward in their ability to deliver their roles, even if I had questions about the over-arching tone. The cinematography, while didn’t do anything to necessarily set him apart from many others, it still worked in it’s ability to carry the movie forward.
I’d recommend anyone to go see this movie. I would hope that church groups and community groups would schedule trips to go see this movie. It will incite dialogue, and hopefully helpful dialogue. That, I’m sure was the whole point.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL