September 9, 2015

Queer Review: Dear White People (2014)

Dear White People
Director: Justin Simien
Writer: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Syvertsen

A comedy about a group of black students at the prestigious (and fictional) Winchester College, Dear White People manages to make plenty of provocative observations about the state of race relations in the United States, in addition to being both entertaining and funny.

When the prestigious (and presumably Ivy League) Winchester College decides to engage in randomized housing assignments, it threatens to break up the Armstrong/Parker House -- the house which represents the heart of black student life at Winchester College. When the current the head of Armstrong/Parker, Troy (Brandon Bell) fails to protest the new policy, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) runs against him and to her surprise ends up winning. Sam, who is famous on campus for her in-your-face radio show called Dear White People, sets out to overturn the new housing policy, while dealing with a serious of personal issues. These include the failing health of her white father and the complexities of navigating an inter-racial relationship when one is the face of black resistance on a mostly white campus. While all of this is going on, nerdy student journalist, Lionel (Tyler James Williams), tries to get the scoop on the situation while facing down both homophobia and racism. Further complications arise when Coco (Teyonah Parris) in an attempt to generate conflict so she can be featured in a reality TV series, agrees to DJ for a racist blackface party that will be thrown on campus.

The Queering
Recently, I had a conversation with a few other people that went approximately as follows:

Person 1: So, why did you move to Minnesota?
Me: Because my partner got a job teaching at [local college].
Person 2: Oh nice! What does she teach?
Me: Um well *he* teaches penology.
Person 1: She teaches penology? What's that?
Me: Er, it's the study of prisons. That's what *he* teaches.
Person 2: The study of prisons, eh? That sounds interesting. I might take a class with her.

My partner, as it were, has a similar story of living next door to someone for years, and talking about his (then) boyfriend using male pronouns all the time and the other person, in all of those years, never realizing that my partner was dating another man.

Moments like this, at the end of the day, are easy to brush off as trivial. A minor pin prick, nothing more. But shrugging off each trivial incident can take a little bit more energy each time, eventually becoming simply exhausting to deal with. Some off us develop means of deflecting minor incidents, such as the above. Our skin becomes calloused and tough. Others are not so lucky. If one finds oneself saying, "but it was only a pin prick, it shouldn't have hurt them!" remember this: the place you stabbed was quite likely an open, gaping wound.

Dear White People deals quite frankly with a topic that few films, even amongst those that explicitly care to address the issue of racism, direct their attention toward - that of micro-aggressions. There are no lynchings, no people of color falsely accused of a terrible crime, and no mention of the KKK. When the police show up, it's to break up a party and the only person arrested is a white male who's in the process of beating up Lionel.

Instead, the topics that do get addressed are the lack of representation of interesting and complex people of color in the media, white people constantly touching black people's hair (Lionel refers to his hairdo as a black hole for white people's fingers), and having to deal with a white people simply dating a black partner, for no greater reason than to piss off their parents.

One of the most visceral sequences (not to mention a fairly brilliant one from a writing and technical perspective) has Sam explaining three different patterns black people can fall into when interacting with white people. There's the offta, who dials their blackness up or down depending on the audience, the nosejob, who exchanges their blackness for whiteness, and the 100, or someone who is 100% okay with being black. What makes this sequence so compelling is the way Simien intercuts between different black characters who are all exhibiting the exact behaviors Sam is describing.

Sam, we are told, is a big fan of Bergman, and with two characters (the dean and the president of the college) being described in a perpetual chess match, it would appear that Simien is trying to draw a parallel between the infamous chess match played with death in The Seventh Seal and the constant strategizing black people go through when interacting with white folks.

With the films constant focus on issues of race, Simien naturally has been compared by just about everybody to Spike Lee. However, with Simien coming at the film's premier as gay, a more natural antecedent would be Cheryl Dunye who directed The Watermelon Woman. There is more than a bit of Cheryl (the character Dunye played in The Watermelon Woman) in Samantha White, mixed with Honey, the radio DJ from Born in Flames, (a film Dunye was not involved with).

Dear White People does admittedly make a few missteps along the way. The ending feels a little anti-climactic, some of the melodrama doesn't always work, and a couple of major plot points are a bit confusing. However, these elements don't detract from the overall impact of the film. Based on what he achieved here, I look forward to whatever project Justin Simien chooses to work on next.

Highly recommended. Dear White People would be worth going through all the admission processes at all of the most difficult Ivy League Colleges to get into in order to see.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 stars out of 4


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

September 7, 2015

Queer Issue: On the Upcoming Stonewall Film and the Absence of Historical Transgender or Transsexual Characters on Film

By now, the fact that the soon to be released Stonewall movie directed by Roland Emmerich minimizes the contributions of transgender women of color and that key figures such as Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major are entirely absent, is fairly well known.

However let's recap things briefly. While the film is yet to be released, and thus could look very different from the previews and promotional material, the signs are not currently all that promising. The main cast is mainly white and the trailer focuses on a white gay male character who appears to be responsible for (in the movie) actually starting the riots. Although, I never heard the version where a brick thrown threw a window was what started the riots, but um, okay.

Admittedly, the trailer could be misleading, and the cast, as billed, is not reflective of who actually gets to play major parts in the film. Also, there is a character listed as Marsha P. Johnson on the film's IMDB, which will mean that Marsha P. Johnson will be the second transgender woman of color to have a character based on her appear in a major motion picture. The first (that I am aware of) being Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I have often bemoaned the straightening out of historical LGB characters when they are presented on the silver screen. A process in which bisexual or pansexual characters will either be presented as engaging in only heterosexual copulings, or the same sex partners will be minimized or ignored. If they character was gay or lesbian, then they will either wind up bisexual on screen or straight, depending.

However, I have increasingly come to notice the actual absence of characters on film based on historical or real life transgender or transsexual people.

Thus I tried putting together a list of all mainstream feature films that actually featured such characters. Documentaries are excluded. Stories based on a real life story where the transgender character was fictional were also excluded (ie: Dallas Buyers Club).

Here is the list:

-Queen Christina (1933)
-The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)
-Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
-Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1977)
-Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Upcoming Movies:
-Stonewall (2015)
-The Danish Girl (2015)

I may be missing a few. I can't claim to be an expert on foreign films for example. And many early silent movies have been lost altogether. But even if there are a few examples that I'm missing, that's still a pretty pathetic list. If there are any, let me know, and I'll add them in.

But as it stands, of these examples, one is the story of a trans-man who ends up dead (Boys Don't Cry). Two are famous for primarily being transgender or transsexual (The Christine Jorgensen Story and Queen Christina. The remaining two characters are incidental to the main story (Dog Day Afternoon and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Not that there is anything wrong with presenting the stories of tragedy within the LGBTQ or cases where the character is famous for being LGBTQ, but there needs to be a point where we move past that.

Consider as a point of comparison, the number of movies based on the lie of Ed Gein (who was not in any way transgender in real life), in which characters who were based on him (or his murder spree) are shown cross dressing or attempting to obtain sex change operations. There are 5 of them that I am aware of. (Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.) Add in sequels and the Gus Van Sant Psycho remake, and these films easily outnumber the films featuring historical transgender characters.

It's worth pointing out that there isn't exactly an absence of historical transgender or transsexual people to tell stories about. The fact that Sylvia Rivera has never shown up in a mainstream film in spite of (almost now) two films about the Stonewall Riots, is itself disheartening.
A few examples:
-Alan L. Hart: Saved thousand of lives by innovating the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of tuberculosis.
-King Ashurbanipal: Developed one of the largest collection of cuneiform documents ever and had a card catalog to find material. In plain talk: He invented the library.
-Karen Ulane: Was fired by Eastern Airlines for undergoing gender affirmation surgery and sued the airline in court before dying an airplane crash.
-We'Wha: A famous Zuni Native American who met President Groover Cleveland.
-Lynn Conway: Computer scientist whose innovations are still used in modern computers and transgender activist.
-Chevalier d'Eon: French spy and member of the Secret du Roi.
-Elagabalus: Roman Emperor who developed such a scandalous reputation that he had damnatio memoriae (the erasure of a Roman's official public record and very rarely done) applied to him.

At the end of the day, it's important to note that the stories of people across the LGBTQ spectrum are told (this should go without saying right?). We are starting to see inroads being made with prominent films featuring cisgender LGB characters based on historical figures getting made and widespread distribution. The Imitation Game being the most recent example. However, the lack of portrayals of historical transgender or transsexual individuals on film (and arguably elsewhere) is an issue that needs to be rectified.