SIFF Film Review – Dear White People
Dear White People
Prestigious (and fictional) Winchester University has a race problem. It’s something the administration doesn’t want to admit, but is forced to deal with when a group of white students throw a Halloween party where they let loose their “inner negro.” Ripped from the headlines! (I just like writing that.) Dear White People, directed by Justin Simien, follows four black students and their struggles to navigate a mostly white environment. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a biracial rebel who DJs a radio program called “Dear White People,” and who’s fighting to keep the longtime black dorm black. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a young gay man who doesn’t really feel like he belongs anywhere until he gets a chance to write about Sam for a prestigious school paper. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is the son of the dean and is struggling to live up to his father’s expectations. (Albeit not too terribly hard.) Coco (Teyonah Parris) wants to be famous and is tempted to throw everybody under the bus to get what she feels she’s entitled to, even if it means committing some pretty self-hating actions. Each student has to make their own decisions about what it means to be black and what they will do – and whom they will sell out – to get where they want to be.
This movie, which I saw at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival, works pretty well because it is satire, and as such it skewers all of the characters – black and white. This is also problematic because there are only three sympathetic characters, Sam, Lionel, and a white TA, and Sam and Lionel can be really annoying. Sam’s self-righteousness and Lionel’s general lack of awareness make them a little hard to root for. But they do grow in the end, and it gets easier to care what happens to them. I actually found Coco to be the most interesting character because she is morally ambiguous. She wants very much to be a part of whatever group is dominant, and contemplates doing a lot of things that might compromise her sense of who she is. But underneath it all, she really wants what everybody wants – to be respected and to feel important. There is a subplot with her involving a reality show producer who is on campus to recruit someone to star in a show about black people in white-dominated environments. While this does lead to some funny jokes at the end of the film, for the most part it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s mostly a distraction.
I would say this film was not made with a white audience in mind, and as such almost all of the white characters are nastier than they have to be. (Racism often comes in less-obvious forms that are even scarier than what happens in this movie. Scary because easier to hide.) Did it make me, as a white-looking Latina, uncomfortable? A little bit. Do I think it is okay to be uncomfortable? Yes I do. I’m pretty sure black people have to put up with a lot of negative representations in popular culture that make them unhappy. (I’m not just pretty sure; I know it.) It’s wrong there, and it’s wrong here. It makes the white characters come off as stupid assholes – of which there are many in this world – but it takes any sense of nuance out of the situation. But almost everybody in this film is a negative stereotype, which as I mentioned before, both does and doesn’t work.
As for this not being targeted to a white audience, there is some debate about what constitutes a black film and how far should black filmmakers go to appeal to white culture. Production companies want to make money and have to struggle with how that goal will best be served. Market to the (perceived) niche or be broad enough to appeal to a more general audience? I don’t really care to whom a film is marketed, if it looks interesting, I’ll go see it. And sometimes I have to challenge myself to see things that my ingrained cultural sensibilities don’t think are for me. I think there is a lot in this film that should be of interest to many different types of audiences, and I hope people go see it. It is a very interesting movie and honestly, while its humor is not particularly subtle, it’s a lot of fun. It’s the first feature film for Simien, and I am very curious to see what he does next. In the meantime, check this one out; there’s a ton of good stuff here.