Earlier this week the trailer for Dear White People was finally released, and a thousand thought pieces were quickly published, anxiously awaiting the full movie in October.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, Dear White People started as a concept trailer that went viral several years ago, hitting on so many aspects of the racialized experiences of college students today. With so much support, it turned into a successful Indiegogo campaign, which led the film and the team behind it to Sundance earlier this year, where it was awarded the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent.
If that hasn’t gotten you hyped already, here is the synopsis from the official movie site:
The unexpected election of activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) as head of a traditionally black residence hall sets up a college campus culture war that challenges conventional notions of what it means to be black. While Sam leverages her notoriety as host of the provocative and polarizing radio show “Dear White People” to try to prevent the college from diversifying Armstrong Parker House, outgoing head-of-house Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), son of the university’s dean (Dennis Haysbert), defies his father’s lofty expectations by applying to join the staff of Pastiche, the college’s influential humor magazine. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an Afro-sporting sci-fi geek, is recruited by the otherwise all-white student newspaper to go undercover and write about black culture—a subject he knows little about—while the aggressively assimilated Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) tries to use the controversy on campus to carve out a career in reality TV.
But no one at Winchester University is prepared for Pastiche’s outrageous, ill-conceived annual Halloween party, with its “unleash your inner Negro” theme throwing oil on an already smoldering fire of resentment and misunderstanding. When the party descends into riotous mayhem, everyone must choose a side.
I was lucky enough to see the film as part of MoMA and Lincoln Center’s “New Directors New Film” series back in March with a cast and crew Q&A with following the film. (As a sidenote: the audience was almost entirely people of color, mostly young black people, which was something that both the Lincoln Center moderator and director Justin Simien pointed out, the former as the audience was not the “traditional” Lincoln Center crowd, and the latter as the reaction from this audience to the film was different from the Sundance audience. Both the laughs and the murmurs of agreement and recognition played out differently to this crowd.)
As a non-black woman of color I wondered briefly if this movie would speak to me in the ways that black or white people would experience the movie. There was also the part of me that thought I didn’t need to be represented in a movie about black students’ experiences. What I found was a satire that looked at race and gender and the complexities of intersectionality in a way that was accessible and real. It was often hilarious, sometimes irreverent, and often too painfully accurate. The audience I saw it with, cringed and laughed at moments that clearly reflected their own lives. Every microaggression, every moment of questioning your own motives and identity, and every moment of weighting which aspect of your identity should be brought into focus in different contexts, resonated so deeply that it was almost hard to watch.
Gifs via tumblr
The performances by Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, and Tessa Thompson are amazing. If you were a fan of Everybody Hates Chris, you’ll be pleased to know that Tyler James Williams creates one of the most compelling and heartbreaking characters in Lionel. Teyonah Parris’s Coco is so far removed from her best known role as Dawn on Mad Men, but in many ways those two characters represent the struggle of many black women to survive in a white male-dominated world, where it might be best to project the image of yourself that is most palatable to the world around you. None of the characters ever fall into stereotype territory, and they attempt to subvert and push back against these common one-dimensional portrayals of black characters in film. During the Q&A, Tessa Thompson spoke candidly about the limitations of being a black actress in Hollywood, and about her excitement that this was a movie that specifically required a woman of color lead. This wasn’t a role where people could say that that the source was a work of fiction and just go ahead and whitewash the leads and all supporting characters, despite the race of characters (ie. Joe Wright’s upcoming Peter Pan adaptation and most other movies). This movie depended on the voices of black actors and actresses to sketch out their heightened reality of this fictionalized story.
Both the film and director Justin Simian struggle to find or reconcile this idea of voice and identity. Simian is clearly influenced by Wes Anderson and other art house films, with his deliberate washed out palette and use of chapter title cards. An interesting note, Simian answered an audience question about where he drew stylistic inspiration from, and Simian responded that many of the art house directors such as Robert Altman and Fritz Lang, that he drew inspiration from, aren’t necessarily “allowed” to be associated with black film and filmmakers. When we think of art films or even whatever is considered “classic,” those directors are often divorced from issues of race and diversity. With the amount of media saturation and access to film, it’s not improbable for a contemporary black director to be influenced by Tarkovsky or Bergman. Similarly, it’s reductive to think all black directors are entirely influenced by Spike Lee or John Singleton.
The movie isn’t a perfect film. It has some pacing issues and at times the concurrent plots feel a little rushed or flat. (It could also be my own familiarity with the project and the true stories that influenced the movie that color this.) The movie raises a lot of difficult questions and doesn’t provide many answers which might be seen as a lack of voice or message. The expectation that the movie has to have some underlying message, may also be part of what comes with a movie about race. Ultimately, the movie is as difficult as understanding race and intersectionality is today. It requires dialogue and it requires thought.
There are the obvious conversations that will provide clickbait for many sites for weeks around the actual release of the film, ie. is this movie “racist”? While many people might read that question and laugh that the myth of reverse racism somehow persists, the unfortunate truth is that these “obvious” conversations about reverse racism aren’t so obvious to many people. You only need to look at the movie’s IMDb page for confirmation that conversations about race in this country are divisive and often unproductive; the movie currently has a score of 4.1 on IMDb, with 363 of the votes being scores of 1, which is pretty remarkable considering how few screens it’s actually been on.
During the Q&A, an actor mentioned he was glad as a straight white man to have a chance to participate in this conversation. The (mostly minority) audience laughed at this. It may have been because of the actor’s privilege in assuming that he should be part of the conversation. It may have also been because the movie does actually ask all viewers to deconstruct their identities and unpack that. These identities include whiteness, which people often take for granted and continue to mark as the default. It’s not often that we’re called on to unpack whiteness outside of academia or “social justice blogging.” It’s also deeply uncomfortable to do this work.
As an education and sociology student I think a lot about youth, and about college culture. One of the biggest successes of the movie was its ability to capture the complexities and tensions of being a student of color. There are moments when as a student of color, your academic imperative seems counter to your identity. There are times where students feel alone or unsupported by colleges, whether through intentional discriminatory actions or through color-blind diversity initiatives that downplay the reality of race in order to promote sanitized, safe versions of diversity. While the movie spoke directly to the issue of race in America, it also pointed to the ways that higher education contributes to these fractured conversations and systemic inequalities.
The film serves as a great springboard for these difficult conversations. It pokes and prods at all the hard questions and treats the audience as active participants in the ongoing conversation about race in the U.S. Beyond that, it’s a brave, confident attempt from a first time feature length director. It presents varied and interesting characters for actors of color. It’s an example of crowdsourcing and social media aiding the visibility of bold, courageous projects like Dear White People. For all of these reasons, I will be buying another ticket in October 17th when Dear White People is officially in cinemas. The cringing in my seat was totally worth it.