By Kendra James
The partial cast of “Dear White People,” including Tyler James White
“Dear White People. The single ladies dance is dead. Please turn off your web cams and go on about your lives.”
Dear White People centers around the lives of four Black students at the a fictional Ivy League school. Sam (Tessa Thompson, Copper) runs the controversial campus radio show ‘Dear White People’ which has been accused by the administration of stirring racial tensions around the school. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is under pressure to succeed in all aspects of university life from his father, the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert, 24). Things begin to unravel when Sam, his ex-girlfriend, beats him in the campaign for president of the one traditionally Black dorm on campus. Their stories weave in with Lionel (Tyler James White, Everybody Hates Chris), a gay sci-fi geek who can’t find a dorm where he fits in, and Coco (Teyonah Parris, Mad Men), a Black girl from the south side of Chicago who doesn’t want to be seen as the stereotypical ghetto girl.
Tensions on campus have already been running high with the decision to abolish traditional housing preferences (a policy that only seems to apply to Black students). Things finally come to a head in the form of a riot when the campus humour magazine throws a Blackface party for Halloween, with Coco agreeing to MC.
I loved this movie. I loved everything about it from the characters painted first in broad, archetypical strokes, to the obvious film and directorial references peppered throughout, to the delivery of the promised laughter, to the fact that it appeared to be shot by someone who knew more than how to turn the camera on and off- something that one can’t take for granted in Black, independent, or mainstream film.
Dear White People was recently picked up by Lionsgate for distribution this fall. Despite it’s internet viral success (the initial Indiegogo campaign raised approximately $25,000 in three days) and Sundance credentials, Simien acknowledged that it is likely to be seen as a Black Film by the general public. Simien’s film is definitely an homage to the late 80s and early 90s satirical movies by directors like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, but this isn’t a movie that is –or should be- aimed at Black audiences alone. For me that would be a strange place to put a movie filmed in the style of Spike Lee and Wes Anderson’s love child with hints of a 60s New Wave influence. The film’s referential style is likely in part due to this being Simien’s first feature length film. As a director he hasn’t had the time to develop his own style, and it shows as he meshes together several imitations of others’ styles and various cinematic influences. But there was truth to what he said later, explaining that the references were also pointed and intentional because they’re not something expected (or often seen) from a Black director and cast.
A familiar aesthetic probably doesn’t hurt when it comes to gathering a wider audience either. I found the characters relatable despite their broadness. A sci-fi nerd with questionable hair game? Check. A media studies major who writes papers seen as over the top about Gremlins as a manifestation of white suburbia’s fear of Black people and struggles with an interracial relationship? Double check. Granted, it’s fair to say that I was relating to them -and the story as a whole- directly via my experiences as a Black student who spent seven years being educated in majority White institutions. There’s legitimately nothing wrong with that and empathy is a skill worth developing (dear white people, contrary to popular belief your stories aren’t the only ones that need telling), but in the eyes of a studio executive looking to make money one can see how pairing aesthetically to one of the most popular indie directors would be a plus.
The movie is bound to find its critics in wide release; the cast and crew spoke briefly about some of the criticism they took from white people at Sundance (an astounding majority of which hadn’t even seen the movie yet). Pictures of several Blackface Parties and other racist themes prevalent on college campuses roll with the credits. The subject matter satirised isn’t far-fetched at all; in fact it’s fairly common place. The film doesn’t act as a morality play either. Yes, there’s the assumption made that the viewer assumes that these parties are wrong, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with the the characters’ methods, behaviour, or the outcomes. The title is probably the most abrasive thing about the movie, and even that’s stretching things. As Simien told the audience before the film began, this is a film for all groups and white people? It’s even okay to laugh. Overall, this isn’t overtly a movie about racism or white people being cartoonishly horrible to non white people. It’s more a reflection of our current culture in America, both visually and content wise. Those finding themselves offended probably need to ask themselves why that is.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is directed by Justin Simien and will open in theatres in late 2014. Thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors, New Films for hosting us at the film’s screening.