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


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