December 11 — December 18
Dear White People
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
In the America of generations past, it would’ve been hard to imagine an African-American politician in the highest office in the democratic world. But today, Barack Obama has not only been elected President of the United States but re-elected for a second term, so racism must be over in America, right? That’s a common mindset: the fact that, because race relations may not resemble exactly what they were in “pre-enlightened” America, everything must have gotten better, the colorblind utopia was achieved. Not quite. Racism is very adaptable. We think we’re more informed, more culturally aware and sensitive than we were 50 years ago, and some behaviors have changed, and language has been re-coded, but underlying tensions, bigotry, xenophobia, and hostility haven’t gone away. It takes bravery to suggest this in cinema because it’s not what most of us want the hear, but writer-director Justin Simien shows us that an open, freewheeling dialogue about race reality in 21st century America can be entertaining, illuminating, and even invigorating. And when that dialogue is spiced up with liberal doses of satiric wit and humor, the discussion is more agreeable than we’d think: everyone likes to laugh, and if we can laugh at ourselves, and learn, then we get a lot closer to that Utopian ideal than we are now. Set in a fictionalized Ivy League college populated primarily by white students, Simien’s film offers an outsider’s perspective, how African-Americans see white culture, which in turn tends to see only the parts of African-American culture that it can use for its own entertainment. The main character is Samantha “Sam” (Tessa Thompson), a militant radical who hosts a confrontational campus radio program: the “Dear White People” of the title, where she tells whites not to pat themselves on the back too hard for considering themselves “done” with racism. But Sam’s relationships with whites (and blacks) are more complex than her radio persona suggests. Her ex-boyfriend is wealthy Troy (Brandon P. Bell), son of the university’s dean (Dennis Haysbert); Troy aspires to the social circles occupied mainly by whites, and has effaced all traces of anger from his personality to get along. His new girlfriend is the white daughter (Brittany Curran) of the university president (Peter Syvertsen), whose casual insensitivity exemplifies the cluelessness of many white people who think racism no longer exists in America. Sam is also crossing the “color line” in her romantic relationship with a white teaching assistant named Gabe (Justin Dobies), which she’s not sure how to jive with her own politics. Opposing Sam as the “conscience” of the campus is fame-hungry Colandrea (Teyonah Parris), known as “Coco,” who uses her popular YouTube channel to mock white girls (while only dating white boys in her personal life). Coco’s the apolitical provocateur who will say anything to increase her YouTube traffic, while Sam at least has a real agenda to her radio program. Added to the mix of interesting characters is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an African-American sci-fi geek and wannabe journalist whose homosexuality makes him even more an outsider. The film doesn’t really have a plot: the major driving event is the president’s new “randomized housing policy,” which is ostensibly designed to integrate campus dwellings equitably but Sam sees as a move to keep African-American students from gathering in large numbers, such as those living in the predominantly black Armstrong-Parker House. Does the president’s edict stem from a genuine desire for social integration, or is it fear that black students will “congregate and cause trouble on his plantation” as Sam suggests? The film lets both sides speak their case, and the moviegoer can decide. A film like this could easily descend into angry white-bashing, but Simien isn’t going for cheap laughs. The movie provides astute points that can make white (and African-American) viewers uncomfortable, but it’s a good sort of discomfort, the discomfort of having one’s ideas challenged and one’s mindset enlarged by the perspective of an intelligent outsider. The film culminates in a disturbing sequence derived from today’s news, where the main characters end up in a Halloween party that asks attendees to “unleash their inner Negro.” Viewers can guess how that turns out. The sight of clueless white kids in black face should make everyone cringe, but Simien still finds a graceful note of exasperation, befuddlement, and bitterness in his response to the affront. Often compared to early work of Spike Lee—the campus setting recalls Lee’s film School Daze and Simien pays frequent homage to Lee, Dear White People addresses a “Millennial Generation” racism with a Millennial Generation militancy that combines razor-sharp satire, genuine empathy for people of all races, and palpable frustration that, Obama or no Obama, our nation isn’t quite what it could be in terms of racial respect and consideration. That may be a polite way of saying that Simien isn’t quite as strident as Spike Lee was in Lee’s younger days, but that doesn’t mean Simien isn’t just as tough-minded and ruthless in his presentation of the truth. Filled with revelatory performances, especially that of Tessa Thompson as the conflicted firebrand who has an opinion on everything: why people tip like they do, why there are so many Tyler Perry movies, and how the gremlins in Gremlins secretly represent black people. That last theory illustrates how the film works: it sounds goofy and over-the-top (gremlins are loud, talk in slang, like fried chicken, and get mad when their hair is wet) but isn’t completely loony, and when you get done laughing, it does makes you think…. Actually, Dear White People will make you think while you laugh, even as what it has to say cuts to the heart of the politically correct banalities that substitute for genuine conversation on race these days. It’s an ambitious, messy film, with more ideas crammed into its running time than most movies dare to tackle, but it’s terrifically inventive, audacious, and eye-opening. For those moviegoers who think the most biting satirical humor is only found on television or the internet these days, Dear White People is a dazzling, frequently hilarious, and surprisingly profound commentary on the tenacity of racist ideas, even when the racism might be “coded” as something else.
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