After years of writing, publicizing, crowdfunding and screening his smart-house film to packed film-festival audiences, Justin Simien is finally seeing Dear White People, his send-up of the pitfalls of black-student life at a mostly white college, released in mainstream cinemas today.
And having had the opportunity to see the film on the festival circuit before it won this year’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance, I’m excited about the release Friday in New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and nationwide starting Oct. 24.
Dear White People’s entree into the mainstream scene is overdue. Its humor, style and overall premise are a refreshing departure from most other films that have made it onto the big screen (race-themed or not) in recent years. But Dear White People’s arrival is also bittersweet as it occasionally struggles to illustrate and unpack microaggressions, in the truest sense, under the pressure of incorporating limiting tropes, jokes and story arcs that are more typical of mass media in order to be accepted by wider audiences.
The story explores the themes of race, tokenism and identity politics through the lives of four black students attending fictitious Winchester University who come from very different walks of black life. Troy (Brandon Bell) is a pretty-boy student leader who’s the son of one of the university’s high-level administrators. Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris fame, is a quirky student journalist trying to get in where he can fit in. Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts a popular campus radio show that offers biting social commentary on white appropriation and cultural ignorance. And Coco, played by Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris, is a glamorous, wannabe reality-TV star who lusts after Sam’s online popularity.
Their lives become intertwined when a group of white classmates hold a controversial “African-American-themed” party on campus.
Give Simien his due: Dear White People is incredibly funny and easily relatable for virtually any person of color who has lived, worked and/or gone to school in predominantly white spaces. Through humor and honest, quick-witted dialogue, it places a microscope on the assumptions white America frequently makes about the black experience. More than that, Simien combats the media’s misrepresentation (or lack thereof) of people of color by centering the plotline on a group of young, refreshingly complex black characters. The multidimensional protagonists of Dear White People aren’t just people to watch; they’re also people to learn from, to champion and oftentimes to disagree with as they stumble through their decisions to defy on-campus racism by speaking out against white, patriarchal institutions and schools of thought in certain scenes, but then capitalize on racism and engage in those same problematic constructs in others.
Simien’s oversight, however, is that he illustrates these all-too-common racial inflection points so bluntly in the script that at times he obscures the nature of microaggressions in everyday speech and situations. As I wrote previously for The Feminist Wire, “[t]he essence of microaggressions rests within their ubiquity not the spectacle. They often seep into our daily conversations and interactions when we’re not directly talking about race itself.”
In the movie, issues of identity politics and racial bias are most prominently reflected in the dialogue through conversations about hair and interracial sex. But in reality, microaggressions are more pervasive than that and manifest through all kinds of other socioeconomic permutations that the film never even touches on (and, to be fair, never could). Seeing Dear White People in theaters won’t give viewers answers about how to combat (or even how to talk about) racial bias and the complexity of identity politics. It ultimately leaves the onus on us as people living in real time and space to pick up where the film left off and to fill in the gaps.
But even with Dear White People’s limitations, for a first film, Simien does a remarkable job of mining the (sometimes painful) humor in being a “black face in a white place.” Given the failures we’ve seen at having constructive dialogue about race in America, Dear White People couldn’t come at a better time.
My question now is, where do we go from here?
Monique John’s writing has been featured in For Harriet, the Feminist Wire and Redbook. She has spoken at Fordham University, Tulane University and the Borough of Manhattan Community College on black sexual politics and violence against women. You can find her musings on hip-hop feminism and strip-club chic at her blog, Twerked. Follow her on Twitter.