Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stillbirth of a Nation

“Dear White People”

The Black Students Union, led by Tessa Thompson, objects to stereotypical fare at the local movie house

Dear White People is the debut effort of writer and director Justin Simien, a pertinent satire of racial politics and identity set in a success-oriented Ivy League school in the US – perhaps too pertinent for its own good. We’re presented with four black students: Samantha White, a Visual and New Media major (Tessa Thompson), Troy Fairbanks, Political Sciences (Brandon Bell), Coco Conners, Economics (Tenoyah Parris), and Lionel Higgins, Undeclared (Tyler James Williams). Each represents a different reaction to the mass society perception of them, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is largely – perhaps nearly exclusively – influenced by their race.

The film puts forward four methods of identification taken by black people in this environment, each demonstrated by one of these characters, and shows just how difficult it is for such a black person no matter what course of action they choose. They could champion and assert their blackness, taking pride in their distinct ethnic endowment, but this would lead to marginalisation and even hostility from white racists. They could try to bend their behaviour, appearance and carrying to conform to white culture – “lose the ’hood” as one character says rather condescendingly – resulting in disdain from other blacks, and also a particular aloofness from the whites to whom they seem to aspire. They could take a more fluid position, modulating their blackness up or down depending on their audience, and be sneered at by more resolute individuals (Sam derisively calls these Bojangle-types “ooftas” in her book on racial politics at the school, “Ebony and Ivy”). And there are those who’ve taken no designated course, hoping to remain relatively unscathed by conflict and politics, and spared the nuisance of being placed in a category, but they are just as marginalised and singled out as the rest, or even more so. And to be such a student, as well as being gay, makes it all the more difficult. (We presume the gay black student – spectator rather than participator for much of the story – is the stand-in for the black Simien, who publicly announced his homosexuality when the film was released.)

The plot is told in hindsight, after a fight breaks out between black and white students at an African American-themed party on campus, where guests wear black-face makeup and Obama t-shirts, and indulge in endless jokes about watermelon and fried chicken. In the weeks leading up to it, Sam hosts a black activist radio show named “Dear White People,” in which she levels pointed remarks at the whites on campus: “Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” “Dear white people, dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” “Dear white people, stop dancing.”

The main opponent to this ardent activism is Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the head of a prestigious campus humour magazine, “Pastiche”, which hosted the controversial party in question, and son of the president of the university - in short, the face of white privilege and smugness. He aims a few barbed comments at each of our black protagonists, and carries himself around campus with an affected swagger and desperate grasp on the unfair proportion of power of which he’s found himself in possession.

Much of the film is smart and brisk; it cuts through any triteness or affectation liable to plague such a venture, with a firm but controlled grip on all the issues it juggles. There are funny moments and tender moments, and lucid dialogue, presenting multiple points of view. The trouble is that Simien has indeed made such a competent conversation-starter and has taken so important a subject, that we lose much of the higher experiences that haunt a work of audacious and personal art. Simien has created characters for his film that serve important narrative functions, and bring up significant points in a feature-length discussion, but whose deeper and broader experiences have been totally excluded from the story, so that they become talking points rather than people. The actors, charismatic and persuasive, often manage to get us past the thinness of their characters, but they can’t completely hide it from us.

It is worth noting that a film whose subject is of particular relevance for the culture into which it is released, at the time it is released, runs the risk of being relevant to that time and place exclusively. As it happens, racial conflict has been an issue for centuries, and especially a subject of open discussion since the middle of the twentieth century, and throughout the western world; it’s incredibly unlikely for a viewer to have no appreciation for what is being discussed in Dear White People. But an important subject does not lead to important art, or even inherently good art. There is the risk that sympathetic viewers may suppose that their sympathy is enough, and that the mere existence of this movie and the moderate success it’s garnered are in themselves signs of improvement in society. The film lacks emotional intensity, complexity in the characters, and a serious and passionate suggestion for the resolution of the conflicts. The characters, confined to the personification of short dictums, are denied depth of experience. Simien almost begins to imitate the very behaviour he wishes to chastise with his film: the individual and peculiar are subordinated to representation and borderline stereotypes.

The resolution given is one of moderation: the outspoken and politicised should temper their gusto, the apolitical should become more involved, the self-involved should concern themselves more with the community and its interests. But there is no fine tracing of the underlying causes of the racial conflicts in society, and when photos flash up in the end credits, showing actual blackface events and other racially driven pranks, we’re still left curious as to how such things can happen.

However, the result of Simien’s machinations are still something remarkable for a first feature. The temperament and potential he shows here are the stuff of great art, and if he were to unleash these artistic tendencies rather than constrain them, it would most likely result in an astonishing film. We catch a glimpse of it in perhaps this movie’s most heartfelt moment, in a scene following the screening in class of Sam’s silent film project, The Rebirth of a Nation, a parody of D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 epic (reviewed on this blog). She and a white classmate, Gabe, walk from class to his dorm-room, arguing whether racism still flourishes in contemporary entertainment. The dialogue is quick and heady stuff, and the actors race through it, showing off an oral dexterity that could hardly serve to edify an audience. But through the self-congratulatory big words, the discussion of “-isms” and “-ologies,” and hectic mental sparring, blossoms a scene of sweet sensual satisfaction, as the argument ends with Sam’s abrupt direction in response to Gabe’s rhetorical question: “So when Kanye raps about Louis V and Rolexes and classical art, exactly what exploited pocket of black America are those references being mined from?” “On your knees.” She fumbles with her shirt buttons and he with a belt, and eyes are closed to ecstasy. It’s as if the film has freed itself from its rigid abstractions for a moment, and seems to ponder alone, considering that maybe Life and identity extend to things beyond politics and overt conflicts. The sex wakens the film to possibilities of deeper and more singular experiences, but, alas, we’ll have to wait for Simien’s next feature for anything to come of it.

The Black Students Union, behind Tyler James Williams, reads an invitation to a blackface party on campus


  1. I wouldn't say that the film was too pertinent for its own good, but I definitely think it could have used a little more individualism with each protagonist to make it less generic. As much as I enjoyed it, I just would have preferred a less stereotypical approach. But it wasn't bad for a debut. Great review, Jared!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Michele :) As refreshing as it is to watch something with important subject matter, and a humble discourse of that subject, it'd be good for us to be shown that the people in the film really are people, and not just artifical constructs to serve a single discursive purpose.


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