Dear White People

Justin Simien

Justin Simien

Open Season on Whitey

Reverse racism raises its ugly head again

FILM REVIEW – Dear White People

Main cast:      

Tyler James Williams as Lionel Higgins
Tessa Thompson as Sam White
Kyle Gallner as Kurt Fletcher
Teyonah Parris as Colandrea “Coco” Conners
Brandon Bell as Troy
Malcolm Barrett as Helmut West
Dennis Haysbert as the Dean
Justin Dobies as Gabe
Peter Syvertsen as President Hutchinson

Director: Justin Simien

Dear White People cannot make up its mind whether it should be a comedy out of the National Lampoon Animal House stable or a serious drama. At one moment there are halfway decent jokes such as a college radio broadcast announcing that the minimum number of black friends a white person must have if they were not to be called racist had been raised from one to two with white listeners reacting in panic-stricken fashion. This is a shame because the subject – black students in a white dominated Ivy League university – has considerable possibilities for either form of film.

The film is set in Winchester, a fictitious Ivy League university where the majority of students are white. The university’s white President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen) has decided to place students in campus accommodation on a colour-blind basis. This is met with resistance in an all-black residential house known as Armstrong/Parker. A film production major and mixed-race girl Sam White (Tessa Thompson) unexpectedly wins the election for who is to be head of Armstrong/Parker beating Troy (Brandon Bell), the son of Winchester’s Dean and uses her position to begin agitating for Armstrong/Parker to remain all black.

Sam also has her own college radio station named Dear White People, which unblushingly pushes black stereotypes of whites such as her broadcast requests “Dear white people … please stop dancing”, “Dear white people please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?” When the black dean of Winchester (Dennis Haysbert) tells her that the Dear White People broadcasts are racist she responds, “ Black people cannot be racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race.” When challenged by her boyfriend Gabe (Justin Dobies ) about how she would feel if someone started Dear Black People broadcasts, her smug black victimhood response is, “No need. Mass media for Fox make it clear what they think of us.”  You get the idea of where she is coming from. Except you do not get the full picture because her boyfriend is white and she has a secret liking for Taylor Swift, a distinct no-no for a right-on black.

This type of blurring of character is used frequently in the film to demonstrate not that everyone is the same under the skin, but to offer an excuse for further wallowing in black victimhood. The black students at Winchester U cannot complain of lack of opportunity or of being treated in a demeaning way, but they can still have a great appetite for playing the victim. This means they have to be inventive. One of the ways is to claim that even privileged blacks like them are under tremendous strain because whites expect blacks to both conform to a stereotype and be experts on black culture, or at least experts on what is perceived by both black and white as black culture. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) as a black gay student who does not feel very black is the prime example in the film as he admits, “I listen to Munford and sons and watch Robert Altman films” and is told by a white girl on the student newspaper he wants to write for that, “You’re only technically black.”

Simien is both black and gay and judged by the screenplay he has produced, so obsessively concerned about both that the need for basic dramatic structure is tossed aside. It is also a problem that he wrote the screenplay as well as directing. This is always a difficult duality, particularly as the film is his first attempt at feature length direction. It was also crowdfunded so there was not the usual studio oversight. Having a free hand as writer and director may sound fine in theory but it rests a great deal on the individual who has the free hand. In this case it is a serious mistake, not least because Simien is very green as a director. This inexperience shows because he is clearly under the impression that cramming in everything about a subject will result in a good film. The problem with this approach is that it destroys any plausible narrative as scenes streak by without any continuous dramatic coherence holding them together. One can imagine Simiens whilst directing ticking off one by one the “what blacks think of whites” set pieces he has created.

Examples of these set pieces are:

Mixed race light skinned blacks do better in a white world that dark skinned blacks. This is hung on the difference in treatment between mixed race Sam White and authentically black Coco Connors (Teyonah Parris) by a white TV producer of TV reality show “Black Face/White Place” following Sam’s story but, rejecting Coco pitch for a show “Doing Time at an Ivy League”.

Troy has a white girlfriend, which is seen not as integration but simply as a ploy white girls pull when they want to annoy their parents.

There is a good deal that is deliberately non-PC in the film. A white hoax invite to the party, which causes outrage, is sent out with an invocation to “Liberate Your Inner Negro”. Sam White is described as “like the pissed off child of Spike Lee and Oprah” and Sam’s white boyfriend says “ I’m sick of your tragic mulatto bull”. But it has very little effect both because there are too many “outrage” words and storylines (even the most committed liberal or black activist can only be outraged so many times) and because of the unconvincing nature of the outrage shown.

On top of this jerky narrative there is the crude realisations of both the characters and the drama such as it is. The film is littered with clumsily constructed stereotypes. Troy (Brandon Bell) is the non-threatening black who says things such as, “I really don’t see the issue, never ran into any lynch mob”; Sam White is the threatening black; Troy’s father (Dennis Haysbert) is the paranoid black parent desperate for his son not to give whites a chance to belittle him by trying to make a career as a comedy writer instead of being in a respectable professional occupation; Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner) is the arrogant white boy with a hint of racism.

The comic book nature of the film as it moves swiftly from satirical point to satirical point robs the actors of any chance for substantial character development. Within those confines they all make a good fist of things with Kyle Gallner and Brandon Bell being especially convincing as the stereotypes they were asked to portray.

What is fascinating about the film is that it contains considerable anti-white racism, but Simiens seem to be oblivious to it. The white characters are allowed only subordinate parts,  while the black characters remain centre stage. Black characters have many jibes against whites while the white characters are allowed only a few token ripostes but they are token. For example, Kyle Gallner ventures, “Sometimes I think that the hardest thing to be in the American workforce is educated white guy”. Consequently, the portrayal of whites in the film is ultimately derogatory whereas the blacks, who are shown in less than a flattering light, are in a different category. They may have prejudices about whites but these are presented as being a consequence of white racism both historical and present day. The message of the film is that blacks may be ostensibly racist but the should not be censured or even mildly disapproved of because of the historical legacy, but whites are there to be pantomime villains to be booed at every opportunity. Most probably this is not a deliberate propaganda ploy by Simien but simply an unconscious reproducing what is the default position for politically conscious blacks and white liberals.

There is a sharp comedy of manners to be made of the relationship between whites and blacks in a privileged situation but this is not it. Ditto a really biting satire on white liberal mores when faced with racial questions and the comfort blanket of black victimhood. What the viewer is left to view is a cinematic and ideological mess, which is too soft centred to even provoke outrage.

ROBERT HENDERSON is QR‘s film critic


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