“If I wanted to create a ‘White Club’ at my school, would that be racist?”
That question, indignantly asked by a white audience member during the Q & A after a recent Dear White People screening in Minneapolis, perfectly illustrates how Justin Simien’s film captures the public dialogue on race—while doing nothing whatsoever to move it forward. To wit, the two actors present at the screening deflected, claiming they were just there to answer questions about the making of the film. In the same way, Dear White People has a lot to say about race relations in “the Obama age” or “post-racial America” (hollow terms used almost exclusively by white people), but it doesn’t really want to have the uncomfortable conversation. Turns out it’s a lot harder to actually engage the issue person-to-person than it is to tweet sarcastic barbs, or make a satirical movie, about white privilege.
Director: Justin Simien
Producers: Effie Brown, Ann Le, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Justin Simien, Lena Waithe
Writer: Justin Simien
Cinematographer: Topher Osborn
Editor: Phillip J. Bartell
Music: Kathryn Bostic
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies, Marque Richardson, Malcolm Barrett, Dennis Haysbert
Premiere: January 18, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Twitter is in fact where Dear White People was born, rekindling the cultural embers left after “Stuff White People Like” flamed and fizzled out. As an outlet for his frustration at growing up as “a black face in a white place,” including while a student at lily-white Chapman University, Simien created the handle @DearWhitePeople to offer mocking directions to whites in America (e.g., “Dear white people, please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”). With biting wit that never became caustic, Simien gathered a huge online following that eventually led to a crowdsourced budget for a feature film (and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance).
The Twitter feed, featuring hashtags like #tokenTuesday, is hilarious and heartfelt, and an accompanying YouTube channel offers whip-smart digital shorts that would make SNL writers jealous. Simien cleverly skewers what he describes as “microaggressions, a well-intentioned white person just pissing off an entire community because they thoughtlessly put them all into one little box.” Unfortunately Dear White People isn’t a Twitter feed or a sketch comedy series, and it sacrifices a good amount of spark and humor for the sake of unnecessary narrative. As a web or television series it might have been perfect, allowing a tighter, more intimate focus on the characters without a central plot. Kind of like Portlandia, but you know, not about more white people.
Chappelle’s Show might be a more apt comparison, but it would be generous to suggest Simien is either the second coming of Dave Chappelle or Spike Lee, as Dear White People is neither as funny nor as competent. Which is not to say its insights aren’t fresh—on the contrary, Simien addresses the issue of black identity more earnestly than either Chappelle or Lee, and, critically, does so for the millennial generation. But although Dear White People is a reflection of its time, in a sense it also feels dated, or even stale. Never mind trying to have a conversation about race being a social construct—haven’t white people heard all of these familiar pleas before anyway?
The story takes place entirely on the campus of fictional Winchester University (a Harvard or perhaps Chapman knockoff, it was filmed at the University of Minnesota). The liberal-intellectual bubble of Winchester, like Harvard, bears little resemblance to the real world, making it a conveniently safe place to have emotionally charged debates about race and society without having to deal with any serious consequences. Winchester is a far cry from Ferguson, or any other racial flashpoint of the moment, where lives and livelihoods are at stake. Indeed, in Dear White People issues around socioeconomic class, for example, are entirely ignored. This supports Simien’s thesis that prejudice and ignorance are prevalent even in liberal academic utopias (who knew?), but it offers little of relevance to the vast majority of people of color who aren’t members of the 1% (and are struggling with redlining, the achievement gap, etc.). Dear White People Problems, if you will.
Anyway, back at Winchester a bevy of beautiful people are trying to discover who they are, and who they want to be. The plot involves a string of noisy, mostly clichéd arguments between black and white students, many of which include amusing black cultural references that may go over the heads of white audiences. In between these tired debates, however, the smaller, emotionally naked conversations the characters have with each other are terrific, and will resonate deeply with people of color living in predominantly white environments. Biracial Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the avatar of Simien’s Twitter voice (many of her lines come from actual DWP tweets). Sam is inspired by the Black Power movement but most at ease in the secret company of her white boyfriend. Colandrea 'Coco' Conners (Teyonah Parris) is a Chicago SouthSider and aspiring vlogger who’s willing to play up or tone down whatever racial stereotypes will get her cast on a reality show.
Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) is the prototypical BMOC, a popular student leader who struggles to please his demanding father, the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert, adding much-needed experience to the cast). Troy used to date Sam and now dates the white university president’s daughter; like the others he’s trying to simultaneously live up to black expectations while never living up to black stereotypes. That’s no concern, meanwhile, of budding journalist Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, familiar from “Everybody Loves Chris”), Dear White People’s most interesting character. Quietly intelligent and tentatively closeted, Lionel rejects mainstream black culture but is still acutely sensitive to the racial discrimination and cultural ignorance surrounding him.
If not for the need to bring Dear White People to a dramatic ending, Simien could have spent more time layering the blossoming identities and experiences of these wonderfully written characters (the unheralded Medicine for Melancholy serving as a terrific model). That would have added refreshing perspective to the public dialogue. But like Spike Lee, he has a flair for the provocative, and the film’s tensions finally culminate in a horrifying yet based-in-reality “Unleash Your Inner Negro” party. Lee’s influence is most noticeable here, with extremely disturbing visuals of students in blackface that touch a raw nerve and extinguish any flicker of humor. Despite misgivings I have about it being an easy ending, it’s one of the film’s strongest scenes by far, both thematically and technically. Elsewhere, the somewhat clumsy production bears many of the hallmarks of a first time filmmaker: awkward camera angles, poor sound mixing, an overdone musical score (another Lee influence), and too many obvious attempts to imitate Wes Anderson.
Dear White People is a bold, plucky, relevant film with an inspiring back story, but it’s hard to say what deeper or lasting cultural impact it will have. To put things in context, a recent poll found that nearly half of white millennials believe “today, discrimination against White people has become as big a problem as discrimination against racial minority groups”. Elsewhere, PBS’ new Whiteness Project underscores the growing discomfort, and in some cases resentment, that whites are experiencing as they’re forced to begin embracing their whiteness in a rapidly changing culture. By the time the characters in Dear White People have children studying at Winchester, whites will no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population.
It’s interesting to consider what the national conversation on race will be at that time, and if questions like the one from the white audience member after the screening will be seen in a different light. For now, Dear White People isn’t seriously interested in exploring that idea, or the deeper significance of the country’s changing demographics. The movie is in color, but its perspective on the issues is too often in black and white.