|Tessa Thompson stirs the pot in Dear White People.|
««« Dear White People. Written and directed by Justin Simien. At selected theaters.
Depending on where you stand, we Americans either don't talk enough about racism, or we never stop talking about it. There's no shortage of solemn calls to "have a national conversation about race." But when conservation does start, it too often devolves into lecturing, hectoring, shaming—everything but listening. Many blacks justly see whites as oblivious to the enormous challenges of their lives, subject to a system of institutions and attitudes that preserve white privilege. Many whites, demographically downsized and economically squeezed, laugh at the notion of being "privileged" in a society where the only truly advantaged color is green.
Justin Simien's Dear White People won't solve any of this. It does manage to do the next best thing, though: to enact real conversation about race, instead of just overlapping monologs. It is largely for this reason that it was one of the big hits at the Sundance festival last year.
It's important to acknowledge first what Simien's movie isn't. It isn't a "Spike Lee joint" like Do the Right Thing (1989) or Lee's black college movie School Daze (1988). Both of those films covered similar territory, but along with the politics Lee showed great affection (or nostalgia) for the deep heritage of black culture. Simien has little of Lee's visual flair, and none of his brotherly sentimentality; his "black community" as really just a collection of individuals, each with bitterly conflicting agendas. Dear White People isn't laugh-out-loud funny. It is sharp, though, with moments of dialog that snap and cut like icicles. In short, where Lee made poetry, Simien is more of a prose satirist.
His script concerns the simmering racial scene at fictional "Winchester University". Biracial student Sam White (Tessa Thompson) runs a campus radio show called "Dear White People", where she knowingly stirs the pot of racial anxieties in the college's white majority. ("Dear white people—it is no longer OK to call us 'African-Americans'," she announces. "If you're afraid just saying the word 'black' will make you seem racist, then you probably are racist.") Among her peers are Coco (Teyonah Parris), an ambitious blogger with a reactionary bent, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), scion of the school's first African-American dean, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a writer and gay man whose social alienation is equal-opportunity. Simien sets his characters in motion in and around the staging of a campus Halloween party that supposedly celebrates "the end of racism" by inviting white partygoers to don black-face, act gangsta, and quaff "purple drank" (an event Simien based on real occurrences at various, mostly-white colleges).
To say Sam, Troy et al. object to all this is both to state the obvious and do it no justice, because it's just about the only thing they agree on. Simien's complex, conflicted souls, black and white, give him scope to air the anxieties of both sides. Stereotyping and lumping—respectively the bread and butter of prejudice—are hard to sustain when Simien insists on treating his characters with such tender specificity. Here, race colors everything, but can never be separated from issues of power, privilege, and personality. And nobody is just a victim.
It's become a truism to say that race is a "cultural construction". Indeed, it is often declared as if mere awareness of this fact will set us all free. But people have deep cognitive need of their "constructions". It's hard to say what will eventually replace the defining power of skin color in a post-racial America—but Simien has gone the farthest so far in exploring the possibilities. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro