Dear White People, unapologetically black (English version)

*This is a translated version of my review of Dear White People, originally published in Portuguese, my native language. Click here to read the Portuguese version.

A close look at the film’s title raises an inevitable question: who does Dear White People assume as its interlocutor? A white audience, one would think when considering how a grammar book defines the use of a vocative. Let’s go a step further and speculate around the characteristics of such an interchange: how does the film address itself to it’s “dear white people”? Touché! In the context of contemporary American cinema, Dear White People is a rare example of a film which doesn’t behave like a black lecturer in a room full of white people begging for their attention, to be acknowledged by them as if the film would only exist if they were taken as its quintessential audience (think of the experience of watching The Help: for whom is this film made? To touch whose hearts?). The film’s interlocutory potential with white people exists, it’s OK if they want to watch it, come on over, have a seat. But be careful: have a seat in the back of the room and listen. Listen to us because we need to have a talk about all the erroneous things you do without even thinking on how we feel about it (yes, I’m talking about you rubbing my afro like I was in a pet zoo), about the psychological effort employed to build and sustain ones subjectivity when inserted in a white-normative society. By placing its dear white people in the back of the room, mouth shut, the black audience takes the role of protagonist in this interlocutory relationship – thus the contrary of what is suggested at first sight by the use of the vocative in the film’s title. It seems more precise to describe it as: we, young and talented black men and women who are also living amidst contradictions, are going to talk among and for ourselves about how we feel, but if you want to listen, that’s fine, go sit over there.

In the context of the Hollywood film industry, the fact that Dear White People is an independent low budget production might have played a meaningful role in the film’s embarrassing audacity. Such structure, I assume, possibly allowed it’s creators more freedom and fewer situations in which its author felt obliged to compromise – come on, it’s 2015 and there’s no way to pretend that when a film’s protagonists are blacks, such a choice is not commonly met with raised eyebrows as if to say “this is not a universal story, nobody wants to see black lives on screen”. Had not Justin Simien, the film’s director and writer, enjoyed a significant amount of freedom to make the film the way he envisioned he might have not been able to take such a full-frontal approach. What can we say of this line placed very early in the film: “Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count”?

Dear White People is a satire and being associated with that genre allows the film to explore certain areas and content that in a standard drama would be met with self-protective resistance. Rather than run away from discomfort, the film’s audience, once it has committed to watching it, will accept being rattled by the film.

From the very beginning the film lays a groundwork of irony: using a soundtrack that alludes to high society balls from the 18th century – Stephen Frear’s Dangerous Liaisons almost instantaneously popped up in my mind – and introducing the characters in slow motion – a group of students, both black and white, from a college known for its apparent academic excellency. We get to know Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a light skinned black film student, agitator and host of a radio show with the same name as the film; Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a shy, gay nerdy student who’s still traumatized by homophobic high school bullying; Troy Fairbanks, who is preparing to fill his father’s shoes in becoming what Malcolm X would call the “house negro”; and Coco Conners, who among the four is the only one with an articulated plan of erasing any possible trace of blackness in herself. Since the film is told through one long flashback, the present is shown to us in a series of quick flashes that reveal there was a “Blackface party” in the campus that has caused outrage within the black community.

Simiens’ crafty screenplay dissipates any initial suspicions that the film would deliver nothing more than shallow, superficial characters. On the contrary, he’s able to play with archetypes and exaggeration, avoiding a risky caricaturesque approach. What we actually see is a deep investigation of its four protagonists and the reasons that cause psychological dichotomy (Samantha), denial (Coco), depression (Lionel) and alienation (Troy). In the process of searching for the characters’ inner soul the film attains two of its strongest moments, both in terms of form – the composition of the shots and editing – and content.

Scene 1: a black TV reality show producer explains to Coco that he’s on Campus looking for possible participants for his show. As she answers some of his questions she lets slip that her real name is Colandrea and that her family comes from the south side of Chicago. He reacts as if he had just met a sister and reminds her (and us) that such an area is historically identified with black people – it’s a “hood”. Coco hotly denies any willingness to be identified either with him, or with that location and the people from there (“there’s nothing ‘hood’ about me”). They are separated by a mere table and in the background a television is playing Coco’s vlog.

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In just one shot Simien manages to show two very different understandings of how one’s identity might be negotiated on a daily basis. At the left it’s said implicitly “Yes, we both are black, we both know it and that is cool”; at the right, “No, I can run away from my blackness”; in the center, on the TV: “look, I’ve done it, I’m no black no more”.

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Scene 2: Lionel looks puzzledly at the shiny happy people on campus wondering if he could ever fit in with any of the groups. First he fantasizes being able to embrace one dimension of his identity, his gayness. This fantasy leads to nothing but dissonance. Then he imagines a scenario in which he will come to terms with the other dimension of his identity, his blackness. Dissonance, once again.

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Everything is in there in the framing and editing, in the way the author looks at the world and its raw material. In the second scene Simien adds another layer of understanding in how Lionel observes his (not so) counterparts on campus: we see him circumscribed by two other bodies, his face between them, pinched by edges that limit his circulation around that environment. Lionel is divided and squeezed between his two selves. Lionel is not a free man.

Brother to brother, sister to sister

After repeating the word “identity” several times in this article it may sound unnecessary to point it out once again. But since both the film’s US and UK releases were followed by reviews exclusively accessing the film as a comment on racism, it still seems necessary to say: Dear White People is a satire on reforging one’s identity in Obama´s “post racial” America and how a black person’s aspiration in doing so is met with resistance in a white-dominant environment. Investigating issues of identity and belonging with both heart and mind, Simien’s film manufactures a sharp critique of the efforts one makes in order to be accepted – or shall we say incorporated?. The experience of watching Dear White People is both embarrassing for white audiences (especially Sam’s radio show and the disgraceful Blackface “party”) and painful to black ones. Dear White People does not touch exclusively on the Sidney Poitier archetype of the intelligent-law abiding citizen Negro who goes through a great deal of pain to fit in (Troy and Coco), but also on the high expectations within the young, contemporary socially-engaged black community (Sam and Lionel).

For the former, there is only tragedy. Coco struggles with “attempting a hallucinatory whitening” of her background and her own self [1], which might lead to nothing else but loneliness [2]. Troy is at a crossroads, trying to follow his own desires while attempting to fulfill his father’s expectations. He can´t even light up a joint (oh, such rebelliousness!) without guilt because, if caught, as a black man he’ll be seen as just “another thug”; Troy is a political science student, but what he really enjoys is comedy: obviously it’s a forbidden area for him, as if “how dare you fancy such a mundane thing? Don’t you know better, boy, how many young black men would give an arm to have your opportunity to attend this A-1 college?”.

For the latter what is left is also a hallucinatory effort to fit in, only there are blacks functioning as a source of approval/disapprobation: Samantha and Lionel, the inverse reflection of Coco and Troy. Samantha: an aspiring filmmaker and a true shitmaker – as her boyfriend boldly puts it –, she is almost co-opted by a militant group who demands from her a full commitment to their praxis. While the group believes that politics should come before aesthetics, Samantha digs a dialectic interaction. The two short films she makes during her graduate year demonstrate this. In the first one we can sense a desperation to be heard at any cost; in the second, the anger and a sense of urgency are still there, but she is unwilling to neglect her own aesthetic desires.

Anytime we mention a feature film directed by and starring black people, there we go, Spike Lee comes automatically to our minds – at least here in Brazil. But we should know there has been so much more in terms of blacks in the film industry since the late 1910’s and early 20’s. Rather than Lee (though one might argue that the academic setting of Dear White People might call to mind his School Daze), it seems that Samantha´s aspirations are closer to the protagonist of Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (2012). What connects her and Assayas´ Gilles is the pressure to hold onto their conviction that they can have a political existence through the act of filming.

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In a crucial moment of decision both of them resort to cinema: Samantha grabs her camera to register the moment; Gilles immerses himself in film.

Dear White People is an upsetting film. For white people, obviously, who are forced to see how absurd their “natural” reactions are in certain situations, especially through heavy doses of truth-right-in-your-face thrown by Samantha on her radio show (“Dear white people, this just in: dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”; “Dear white people, please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”). But also for us, black people, who are compelled to deal with a movie that does not take a paternalistic approach. Instead of representing “the blacks” or “the question of the Negro”, Simiens´ film opens a wide range of possibilities (some of them not at all comfortable) for our existence in the world.

*Heitor Augusto is a film critic, researcher, lecturer and journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. He can be reached at heitoraugustod@gmail.com or @ursodelata on Twitter.

[1] “If he [my patient] is overwhelmed to such a degree by the wish to be white, it is because he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race; to the identical degree to which that society creates difficulties for him, he will find himself thrust into a neurotic situation. What emerges then is the need for combined action on the individual and on the group. As a psychoanalyst, I should help my patient to become conscious of his unconscious and abandon his attempts at a hallucinatory whitening, but also to act in the direction of a change in the social structure.” in Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, 2nd edition. London. Pluto Books, 2008. p. 74.

[2] For people who understand Portuguese I strongly recommend reading the short article Síndrome de Cirilo e a solidão da mulher negra, available at Blogueiras Negras. For English readers the issue is touched on the article The solitude of the black women is not about being single, is about what is imposed upon us, available at Black Women of Brazil.

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