“Can we have a movie with characters instead of stereotypes?” Echoing a question posed by his protagonist, director Justin Simien challenges the American public — and himself — to answer this question with his film “Dear White People,” released Oct. 17. It’s a worthy attempt, but I’m not sure he succeeds.
Tessa Thompson plays Samantha White, an outspoken activist and the host of a radio show called “Dear White People.” When she beats out crowd favorite and incumbent Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) as head of a black culture dorm at Winchester College, students — both black and white — are forced to reexamine their racial identities. Throughout Simien’s film, there’s conflict between black and white people, between black people and black people and between those who are more “Black Panther-black” and those who are not “black enough.” This culture war culminates in an “Unleash Your Inner Negro” party thrown by the nearly all-white members of Winchester’s comedy magazine, Pastiche. White students show up to the event in blackface, wielding gold guns and grills, wearing Barack and Michelle Obama masks and flashing gang signs.
“Dear White People” is risqué, witty, sleek and sexy. The film uses one-liners like “Y’all get country clubs; we get to use the word n—–” and “Please stop touching my hair — does this look like a petting zoo to you?” to provoke and slap the wrist of viewers ignorant enough to get offended. Simien’s movie pokes fun at white people, and those who critique it as an “attack on white people” miss the point completely. “Dear White People” seems to say, “You’re offended by the mere thought of being addressed this way? Think about having to endure that for 200 years.”
“Dear White People” is the work of a young and promising director. He’s ambitious and brazen, though sometimes overstretched by the nuanced subject matter of this film. For the more complex explanations of the difference between racism and prejudice and of flawed literary depictions of black people, Simien relies too heavily on Sam’s frequent lengthy speeches, which sound straight out of a sociology thesis. “Dear White People” runs with the racy comebacks and then patches up the holes between with these soliloquys, which all too often seem out of place.
Unfortunately, the film is burdened by a glut of underdeveloped characters whose complexities aren’t given enough evaluation. Troy — former homecoming king, class president type, and Sam’s sworn rival — has to make the choice between, in the words of his father, “becoming exactly what they expect you to become” and rejecting behaviors unfairly associated with black culture. Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) panders to the white Pastiche boys and brands Sam’s radio show as “blacker-than-thou” while maintaining a “vlog” wherein she also calls out white people (“It’s weave. Noun. Present tense”). Sam goes through abrupt changes: She starts off fiery-tongued and unafraid, but halfway through the film, we’re confronted with the fact that she’s halfwhite, she has a white boyfriend and — most criminally of all — she listens to Taylor Swift. Suddenly, she experiences a total personality reversal, going from indignant and outspoken to hesitant about her role and duty as a black person. It’s as if she, too is learning about her mixed-race background for the first time. While the characters do well in rebuking black stereotypes, the film itself often comes across as a series of commercials with its own set of clichés — featuring the “Hipster Alternative Black Girl!” or the “Successful Black Man!” “Dear White People” lacks a nuanced exploration of these personalities in conflict. I’m interested in all of them, but I end up really getting to know none.
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is an overlooked gem in this movie. He’s both black and gay, doubly ostracized for his race and his sexuality. The white kids cruelly taunt him for being gay, while the black kids shun him for not being involved with Black Students’ Union. At first, he lives with the Pastiche boys as a result of the “Randomization of Housing Act.” Then, he moves in with Troy at the black culture house. He’s welcome in neither place. Lionel’s neither white enough for the white students nor black enough for the black students, and too gay, apparently, for everyone. I appreciate Simien’s inclusion of Lionel’s sexuality as an additional point of observation; however, its importance is lost in the more prominent discussion of race. Lionel doesn’t actively try to reject elements of his identity that seem “too black,” like Coco, nor does he enthusiastically embrace black culture. He’s the most submissive of the characters, metaphorically and literally subjugated to the needs of the white man and black man. For example, he’s told to leave the dining hall by his own black peers, and welcome nowhere until he, in essence, chooses a side. As a black person, is it your responsibility to advocate for black people? Simien seems to say yes. He doesn’t allow black characters that don’t engage critically in identity politics to thrive. Lionel finally makes friends when he develops from someone apologetically black to someone who stands up for his racial identity. To me, it’s just too bad that no one cared about him before.
Toward the end of the film, Simian depicts Sam, Troy, Lionel and Coco getting ready for the Pastiche writers’ offensively-themed party. The camera switches rapidly between the four, as they each peer directly at the audience, moving in slow-motion. Sam takes down her updo. Coco puts on a blonde wig. Lionel fingers his Afro self-consciously. They’re people from all different backgrounds. They don’t like each other, but here they are, black, all trying to twist and shape and change themselves to fit into a white world. Even as they’re fighting against white people and white power, the norms of the white world are what they have to choose to reject or accept. But why should they have to? This is a poignant scene, but scenes that are similarly powerful both in form and function are sparse in “Dear White People.”
The racist characters of “Dear White People” are so blatantly bigoted that I’m afraid audience members will forget that less obvious racism also exists. Maybe 20 people will show up to a party in blackface, but hundreds more undermine racial equality in more subtle ways. Nevertheless, Simien makes his point: Though indignant viewers might wonder if people are so obviously racist anymore, the credits roll and pictures from real college parties with white students sporting blackface, guns and gold chains confirm that blatant racism is still more widespread than we may think.
One final thing to think about is the film’s lack of engagement with characters of races neither black nor white. With the mention of Mexicans in one scene and the inclusion of a nameless Asian student, Simien seems to acknowledge the existence of other minorities without including them in the conversation. It’s a difficult balance. Simien is tackling a very specific and unjust oppression — that of whites on blacks — that needs its moment in the spotlight. But does he achieve his goal at the expense of other minority voices? Can there be a discussion of race that includes all oppressed racial minorities? Can we have characters, and not stereotypes, that encompass all those deserving of a voice?
Bottom line, “Dear White People” is imperfect but important. I wanted to write about this film; after writing, I still want to talk about this film. It has its problems, both as a piece of cinema and as a story about race relations. But there are too few films that dare to touch this issue so unabashedly — so watch it, and let’s talk.