Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dear White People - We're Still Here, America

PSA: This review has been written by a White American male.  I am a creature with the highest level of privilege in the entire world.  Feel free to ignore my opinion and anything I say involving race relations.

2014 was not exactly a great year for White-Black relations in America.  People who called the election of Barack Obama following a relatively quiet decade at the start of the 21st century 'the end to racism' are so clearly wrong.  It was not that racism went away or that racial divides suddenly healed because one man got one job, it was just that other issues took center stage.  The honest racists or dishonest manipulative race-baiting politicians of this country had plenty on their plate what with Jihadist Terrorism and the immigration debate.  I do not think anybody actually believed racial divisions were over, they just wanted to stop thinking about the issue.

The End of Racism is not so much a moment of true harmony and equality, just a moment when those in power can say "There, Black people, haven't we given you enough now? Can you finally be quiet?  Can we stop talking about this race issue?"  Well, as riots in Furguson and protests in New York tell us, race is not over.  It will never really be over.

"Dear White People" is a movie I really wish was much better than it is.  The title evokes a wake-up call to every White person who nicely decided that they had done enough in their lives when it came to Black culture, or ones who never cared at all to try.  "Dear White People - we still exist, we still have problems, and just because you don't wear a white bedsheet or vote Republican, you are not innocent.  And no, crying home alone while watching your Redbox rental of "12 Years a Slave" is not enough."  It is the story of four Black youths living in the fictional Ivy League school, Winchester University, taking stock of their racial identity and difficulties of growing up.  "Dear White People" has a great deal of important things to say, but unfortunately needs just a bit stronger structure, more biting humor, to actually get people to listen.  It has a sharp edge, but this blade just cannot cut deep enough.

The main character, Sam White (Tessa Thompson) has a firebrand radio show called 'Dear White People' where she mercilessly tears down the myths of post-racial America and shines light on the oft-forgotten side of Black and White relations.  Sam appears at first as nothing more than a pair of lips and a posh voice, challenging her entire school to wake up to it's darkest divisions.  White People are told to have two Black friends to consider themselves non-racist.  And no, they cannot touch frizzy Black hair.  Also, the word "African American" is now automatically racist, because if you're going to work that hard to sound non-threatening, clearly you are compensating for wanting to use the N-word*.  Comfortable assumptions that upper class Ivory Tower institutions like Winchester are bastions of harmony and understanding are easily broken, as Sam's show pushes every student to re-examine their lives and their skin color, including Sam herself.

The cast reacts to "Selma"'s lone Oscar nomination.
Though "Dear White People" is addressed towards my race, it is a film about Black students, and a film about what it means to be an upper class Black person in the 21st century.  Racial definition is not as clear-cut as a simple White and Black duality.  There is a running question in every character:  "am I Black enough?"  (White people do not need to ask this question:  our tribe is the dominant tribe, and our membership is absolute, no matter what hip hop artist we dance to when we're drunk.)  Sam herself seems like a cut and dry militant, but she has to fight to keep her hair from being too straight and she hides the fact she has a White father, and a White lover.  A lot of "Dear White People" is not just about tearing down happy myths, it's also questioning the comfort of racial identity.  Some characters need to embrace their Blackness, some need to stop using it to dominate their entire lives.  Some leave the film just as unsure of themselves as when they began.

The second most important character is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams**), a nerdy aspiring writer.  Lionel has grown a - pardon my awe here - magnificent afro roughly the size of the average dwarf  planet in the Kuiper Belt, but despite this, grew up in a White suburban neighborhood and is unsure of himself around people of his same race.  He is especially nervous because he is gay, and is fearful of the stereotype of Black prejudice against homosexuals.  Worse, his Blackness is fetishized by another White student, who just seems him as a giant chocolate Tootsi Roll Pop.  Compare Lionel to Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), a student politician who is driven by his ambitious father, the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert).  Troy has a White girlfriend, a clear path in life, but really he just wants to be a comedy writer, smoke weed, and have fun.  He's smothered by propriety - you have to work ten times as hard to succeed as a Black man in a White world.  But does he even want that?  How does a person so self-obsessed not end up as a total prick?

Unfortunately not everything works too well "Dear White People".  The fourth major lead, Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a probably the most imperfect piece.  She's a girl from the Chicago slums trying to act like a middle class Black student, and beyond that I could not get much of a read on her.  She's jealous of Sam, so she acts more Black.  Namely her whole issue is to get on a reality TV show, leading into a bizarre confusing subplot which concludes in an absolutely illogical way.  I'm not sure that reality TV is a particularly important part of most college student lives, it was a waste of this film's running span to focus on it.  Mostly I think Coco was there to make jokes about weaves.

I may have a small crush on Tessa Thompson, don't judge too hard.
If these issues all sound a bit too weighty and dramatic to actually be funny, then your instincts unfortunately, are right on the money.  "Dear White People" suffers a common problem with many comedies in that the best funny moments are front-loaded into the trailer.  If you've seen that, you've already gotten the best laughs.

There are moments I loved, such as a humorous examination of the conflicts a Black person has when it comes to bad service as a restaurant.  Sam goes on a long heated argument with a White TA about how her angry racial student film "Re-birth of a Nation" was trite and didactic, then concludes the fight by fucking his brains out.  A lot of the movie feels very modern and 21st century, with characters obsessing over Youtube hits*** and just what is off-limits when it comes to satire.  I loved how Sam defined her relationship with the TA boy.  When he asks what they are doing, her answer is "fucking".  No more and no less.  Sam is sure allowed to poke holes in the racial fabric of her school, but when the White students try to follow the footsteps of Dave Chappelle and "The Boondocks".  Also Tyler Perry rightfully gets chewed out, and one can always appreciate the happy fact that the Medea Age has ended.

One really wishes that a film set in a college campus could have been bawdier.  "Dear White People" is a strange kind of restrained comedy.  First-time director and writer, Justin Simien seems to have realized that he really tapped into something original and important with his film, and let the weight of his subject overwhelm the humor.  Too much of the dialog feels like a pre-arranged speech.  It's fine to be eloquent when the moment calls for it, but college was more full of stupidity and sex jokes (and sex that felt like a joke), not master theses on racial discourse.  When the movie does finally try to let loose, it is at a hideous Blackface party put on by the douchy frat boys, in what they think is humor.  (If you think this is a crazy exaggeration of how bad frat boys can be, you have not seen many frat boys, nor have you seen the news about parties just like this one happening just two years ago.)  Events come to a head here, but... it just isn't that funny.

I wish I could grow an Afro that beautiful. But when Jews try it just never works...
With Black issues, homosexuality issues, women's issues, "Dear White People" is an irresistible burrito for any liberal film critic.  However structural problems and just an inability to get the film's energy going into a nice rhythm of constant laughs makes "Dear White People" something it should not be:  kinda forgettable.  Sure there are great performances in this film by Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, and even a coherent original beat, but it just does not seem to be enough.  I would love to be out there to sell this film's gospel.  These are conversations that should be heard by more Americans.  These conversation is still being had, of course, but not in pleasant comedies as I think we would all prefer.  They're happening with corpses in the street and stores burning.

"Dear White People" offered a sharp take on the question of Blackness in this decade, but who is there to listen?  A great way to a person's heart is through their gaping laughing mouth.  Hopefully Simien will refocus his efforts for his next movie.  It is a good first step, but one aches for a great second step.  Where will "Dear White People" be in a few months?  A few glowing reviews from some critics, but completely ignored by the general public.  That public will instead have gone to see the dozen films starring Kevin Hart to come out in the next few months.

Enjoy your "Wedding Ringer", America.

* No, I cannot use the N-word.  I'm a White boy.  Life has given us many things, the N-word is the only thing excluded to us.  I will say "Black" though because the Politically Correct age died twenty years ago.  "African Americans" sounds like some kind of empty statistic.  "Black People" have history, culture, and identity.  The word rings with it's own feared connotations and power - I can respect that.

And no, you're not a European American, don't get fucking cute with me.  You're White.

** AKA: TV's the Chris that Everybody Hated.

*** Coco is mad when her video gets only 10,000 hits as compared to Sam's half a million.  Coco, cry me a river.  I'm happy when I get 1,000 views.


  1. Hmmmm, I am very hesitant to say anything on the subject matter. As it is very touchy subject and as a person of Caucasian descent I have to be careful what I say.

    That being said, watching the racial problems in the states from here in Canada is just depressing.

    Look I would be lying if I said there was no race problems here in the great white north, trust me there are. But generally we kind of have a live and let live attitude, we will make occasionally a racial joke here and there.
    But everybody is the joke, Caucasians, Asians, Hispanics, Africans . Everybody is fair game.

    But the brutality against the African American (yes I know its not a perfect term, but its the best I can use these days) community is appalling.

    Look there will always be instances where African Americans are stopped or harassed by Caucasians for legitimate reasons, e.g. robberies, that makes legitimate sense.

    But in the past year with all the deaths by law enforcements, harassments and cases of mistaken identity without rights be read. Hell this goes even further back with the BS ruling of Zimmerman's stand your ground. Its just insane.

    There's a argument to be made for 1 or 2 additional cases on average. But this is just out of hand.

    ......I guess what I am trying to say is, there is a massive problem right now in the States. Now I'm not sure what's causing it, maybe its economic condtions, culture problems, police procedure problems. I don't know.

    But whatever it is, something needs to be done.

    Hope this is a better year for all

    Sword Of Primus

  2. Do Pico and Chico also appear in this film?