Dear White People Dir. Justin Simien

[Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions; 2014]

Styles: satire, comedy
Others: Do the Right Thing, Rushmore

Dear White People is about a century-plus old ivy league institution named Winchester that is gripping onto very little while in the throes of modern racism. It is about a student named Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) who hosts a campus radio show that shares its title with the movie, where she calls out bold-faced racism as she sees it; she writes a zine called Ebony & Ivy, is criticized by her peers for emulating the Black Panthers, for being racist, while deified by many others, and ignored by as many more.

She sleeps with a white boy; she’s mixed. She shoots short films on her Bolex camera, and is a media major. The movie blatantly rips off Rushmore, with intention, provocatively; it is set at an ivy league school with intention, too. It is aiming its upper-cuts not at your every day racists and activists. It is pointing specifically at the upper-crust, the educated inexcusables. Its characters are routinely obnoxious, and not without merit; college kids, especially those who believe everything that they do will someday be recorded in celluloid history, are annoying. They do not understand things, and one of the principle things they do not understand is that they understand exactly nothing, just like everyone else.

In a key scene, Samantha is crying in her bedroom. The white boy she’s been sleeping with is there, trying to comfort her, but all the while calling her a mulatto, pointing out her inconsistencies: “Your favorite filmmaker is Ingmar Bergman, yet you tell everyone that it’s Spike Lee.” These are terms that we can understand. And it is suddenly apparent, halfway through, that Samantha is changing herself to be an imitation; she is becoming an activist out of some kind of obligation to an idea. She protests because someone in the past protested. This conversation takes place after Samantha walks out on a protest she’d been planning for weeks. She shuts out everyone. Her heart is not in what she’s doing. She is 19. She is confused. Watching her is puzzling; I still can’t understand why she is the heart of this story, or what this story is trying to get across.

The plot roughly follows the planning of a Halloween party thrown by some kind of fraternity. The theme is “Hip Hop.” Everything boils over here. There are throngs of white students slabbed with black face, wearing Barack Obama masks, drinking “Purple Drank,” blasting rap music, calling each other “nigga,” pointing fake guns and throwing up gang signs at each other, etc. Samantha, pointedly, is not at the center of any of the conflict that comes out of the party; she is mostly idle, and to the side. A simple witness.

But it is no less than the point that this party happened. The end credits give validation, as if it needed it: news stories about parties at Dartmouth and other colleges, with photos to prove the blatant racism of the white students, faces smeared with brown makeup. I have seen parties like this; never ones this bad, but judging racism on a scale of bad-to-worse seems shallow. I’ve seen rooms of white people saying “nigga” to each other, joking about “Purple Drank.” Remember when Julianne Hough (whoever that is) dressed up as her favorite Orange is the New Black character for Halloween? Or how about when Jayson Greene at Pitchfork gave Mobb Deep a 10 and then, after a threatening tweet from Prodigy, started making wise-cracks about his lyrics and their violence? The list goes on, etc.

Dear White People is the beginning to an interesting conversation. It is good satire. It is also trying to have a heart, and failing to build characters. I understand Samantha as a person, but don’t understand her point in this movie. At the end of it, the moral seems to be that the activism didn’t help anything, and that her speaking up did little or nothing; it was futile. But, also, she wasn’t being herself. She was speaking someone else’s mind, not her own. She is interesting, complex, in a movie that is both of those things in gobs, but not much more. It adds up to little, and is bloated with numerous side-plots and relationships that go nowhere: something about a reality TV show casting director, another thing about relationships between white and black parents in the administration at the school and their kids who are students, numerous romantic connections, and so on. It flurries from one thing to the next, never telling us what function the characters serve to the larger narrative. I hope it starts many arguments; it deserves to. But a failure to focus means a failure to get real points across. Then again, Do the Right Thing, a masterclass in focus, left millions of white audiences asking, “Did Mookie do the right thing?” — scratching their heads, as if there was really an answer in there, and if only they could understand black people they would figure it out.

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