Justin Simien’s "Dear White People" opens today! Some thoughts I had for Shadowandact earlier this year after it screened at the New Directors/New Films Festival
Following on the heels of last weekend’s bizarre and racially singular White Man March, in which Caucasians in different parts of the world gathered to announce that “diversity equals mass genocide” and “anti-racist is a code for anti-white," Justin Simien’s new film, Dear White People, will screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art as part of the 43rd annual New Directors/New Films. Timing is everything. A film that counteracts the wave of misunderstanding, ignorance, fear and anger that so often is implemented in public discussion of “the other” (otherness forming as a result of a person’s race, religion, sexual preference, etc.), Dear White People is an entry into interracial cinema — a film featuring multiple races and analyzing that choice — that attempts to unify its audience while simultaneously showing us how different we may ultimately be.
Taking place at the fictional Winchester University, an Ivy League school that has come under fire for being racially segregated, Dear White People kicks off in the midst of House (dormitory) elections. The current head of the Armstrong/Parker House is Troy (Brandon P Bell) a sociable, well-off African-American young man whose father is Dean and whose girlfriend is the daughter of the president of the University. These relationships work both for and against him. His father’s role makes it tough for him to seem anything less than privileged, and his white girlfriend (and her father) makes it difficult for him to be accepted by both black and white students.
Why, in 2014, would this relationship be hard to accept? For far too long, there’s been a disconnect within the student population. As a result, Winchester University has implemented a randomization housing act, gentrifying the Houses to mixed results, grouping those who had previously never given each other the time of day. All is neither well nor progressive on campus; it’s noted that Troy’s father was hired as Dean to prove to the school’s critics its strong diversity.
Troy eventually loses his role of Head of House to the newly elected Sam White (Tessa Thompson), an African-American student/DJ who is the host of the Dear White People radio show on campus (“Dear white people, this just in: dating a black person to piss of your parents is a form of racism”). Running on a campaign that brings racial diversity to the forefront — one ad shows her face on a milk carton with the caption: “Missing: Black Culture. 2% reduced Black. Sam White to Bring It Black” — Sam relies heavily on the black vote to become Head of House. She runs, in part, on the need for racially-specific housing and isn’t afraid of confronting those opposed (i.e., the school’s President and his preppy egotistical son) to evoke an air of discomfort; for her class film project, Sam creates Rebirth of a Nation, featuring Caucasian actors in white face freaking out and committing suicide upon hearing the news of Obama’s reelection.
Once assuming her newly acquired powers at Armstrong/Parker, Sam works hard to restore a prominent black community. When challenged, she reacts quickly. “What’s wrong,” Sam asks the president’s son in the House’s dining hall, “is [your father] afraid letting the negros gather in groups might start a little rebellion on his plantation? Then you tell him, from me, that he should be.” This angers the son, and from here on out, Sam will become the face of Winchester’s often ignored but very apparent racial divide.
Can sex prove to be the great equalizer? On the surface, Troy’s relationship with his white girlfriend would appear to be going well, even though he has to get high before engaging with her. In a daring sequence that is, due to its absurdity and truthfulness, played for laughs, Troy’s girlfriend attempts to get her man aroused by speaking explicitly. She uses race to get this across (“f**k me with your big black c**k”) and is then horrified and embarrassed when it doesn’t turn him on. In their shared sex life, racial differences equals dominance, power and kinky fun; she believes her boyfriend’s fantasies consist of a black man dominating a petite white woman. Is it true that interracial pornography (and specifically scenes featuring black males paired off with white women) is primarily sought after by white men? Do they in that moment secretly crave to be the black man, renowned in the fantastical world of pornography for his penis size and the joy (and fear) between erection and climax that it instills in women? For better or worse, Troy eventually dumps his girlfriend for a sexual relationship with Coco, a black female student who is more relaxed, open and representing of the kind of woman he thinks he should be with.
And although Sam at first comes off as being in opposition of her white student counterparts, we discover that she too is involved in an interracial relationship, secretly having sexual relations with her white Teaching Assistant. On the surface, they argue over their odd relationship pairing (Sam finds it tough to express her feelings through her hardened exterior), but the two care about one another despite their differences, differences that often feel self-imposed.
The characters’ problems and conflicts are both racially specific and universal, and the film employs a multitude of races not just in its plentiful cast but in individual characters specifically. Late in the film, it’s revealed that Sam comes from an interracial household (her father is white, her mother black), providing us with a big surprise, “aha” moment. This direct link between the two races tends to complicate her life, putting her between the two rather than allowing sole identification with one (Troy may be experiencing a similar problem). Even then, Simien doesn’t go as far to say that this search for an identity defines Sam, but rather that her anger is directed at her own confusion. Since she feels unsure of who will accept her as a member of their own, she too finds herself to be an “other.” Perhaps she will eventually come to embrace it….
Given the tough choices many of his characters make, is Simien’s film then a work that aims to be equal part coming-of-age story and biting polemic? In the film’s much publicized third act, the white students will throw an African-American-themed party run by the president’s son, complete with black face, fried chicken, watermelons and “grape drank." Needless to say, this causes the ultimate colliding of the student population. These parties have been popping up on college campuses throughout the country a lot lately, their inhumane acts publicized due to the instantaneous (and lack of decency and self-censorship) capabilities provided by social media. Dear White People serves as a reaction to these recent heinous acts, condemning the affluent prep kids for their mocking of a culture and for incorporating media-based stereotypes into their race-as-freak-show drunken act. Addressing these issues, the film seeks less to clarify the discriminatory act than to complicate it, adding layers of mystery and questions of character that turn the film into something more reflexive.
As it turns out, the aforementioned party’s theme may not have been chosen by the president’s son, and the email sent out describing the desired activities for the evening may not have come from him either. Yes, he describes the email’s content to us earlier in the film via voiceover, but that proves to be a red herring, and the film is intelligently coy in the way it reveals (or doesn’t reveal) who the organizer is. Simien’s desire to include an element of suspicion to these proceedings allows him to go deeper than merely providing his audience with a real life reenactment.
Eventually the film implies that Sam may have been responsible for organizing the African-American party as a way of seeing how the white students would react. They did as she thought they would, conforming to what they were told and by discarding of their morals and indicators of decency to be accepted into a highly sought after club. Is she guilty for instigating it or are the students guilty for carrying it out? The more information you obtain regarding Sam’s background, the clearer her intentions can be viewed as a test for both races: who will start the fight and who will fight back?
It’s remarkable how Simien keeps his film moving at such a breakneck pace, each line a reference to or a commentary on pressing sociological concerns that are rarely spoken about this openly. There’s much more to say about the film — I haven’t even touched on the character of Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a black, gay student who, when asked, "what’s harder? Being black enough for the black kids or being black enough for the white ones," he replies, "being neither," or the reality TV producer who arrives on campus to cast a show called Black Face, White Place. Sure, there are some instances of parallel editing, "caught in the wrong place at the wrong time" moments that play out a little too conveniently, but the film’s rewards are less about its situations than what it’s saying about them. With biting humor that never loses its teeth, Dear White People may very well be the public address we all need.
Follow Erik Luers on twitter at @ErikLuers.