A scathing symposium on the fallacy of a ‘post-racial’ America, Justin Simien’s Dear White People (2014) aims to expose the myth that ‘racism is over’. At a time when the conversation concerning racism is roaring louder than ever, Simien’s acerbic comedy attempts to show what it means to be black in contemporary America. A ‘black face’ party held on the campus of a fictional Ivy League university bookends this fraternity comedy; the appropriation of black culture by the powerful elite succinctly illustrating how white culture habitually dictates the conversation on race. However there’s one voice on campus that looks to challenge the mechanism of these archaic institutions.
Sam White’s (Tessa Thompson) savagely disillusioned opinions are broadcast across the university on her daily talk show. She’s an incorrigible activist whose affectless tone belies her maximalist views – a smoking pistol with plenty of rounds left in the chamber. Each show begins, “Dear white people” and ranges from advice such as “please stop dancing” and “stop touching our hair” to discussions on why white liberals feel uncomfortable using the term ‘black’. Sam’s isn’t the only perspective we’re offered, there’s also Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay undergraduate writing an article about Sam for a school newspaper, Coco (Teyonah Parris) an aspiring actress who understands that conflict is a commodity in today’s reality TV obsessed culture and the college dean (Dennis Haysbert), who has his own race-related conflicts within the university’s predominantly white faculty.
The only real negative that can be leveed at Dear White People is that the focus on the various interpersonal relationships of this large ensemble, and the multitude of themes broached, leaves the piece as a whole feeling a little bloated and overstuffed. However, the rigid conformity and traditional values at the core of the ivy league environ makes it the perfect microcosm for this deconstruction of the insidious racism within modern society. Successfully dramatising its argument, the film’s appropriation of the college comedy formula initially feels like an attempt to make its message more palatable to a wider audience. However this isn’t a film softly whispering its message to passive onlookers, it’s a passionate rallying cry; a call to arms.
Eschewing the type of sentimental narratives that often accompany films about the black experience and therefore unburdening itself from the inordinate weight of white guilt, Simien presents a refreshingly vibrant and genuinely hilarious discourse about contemporary racism. The chief conflicts aren’t merely between black and white students – intelligently drawn antagonists like Coco demonstrate how oppressive systems force individuals to modulate their identity in order to fit in. By existing within the nihilism of the privileged class Simian manages to show how racism can’t be reduced to a simple dichotomy of white on black oppression; such oppression expands beyond race to encompass gender and class. With recent headlines about Rachel Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity to the Ferguson riots and the tragic events in South Carolina, it would be easy to praise Simien for the precedence of his message. However, this would be missing the point of Dear White People, a film that demonstrates just how deeply the roots of racism remain embedded within society.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble