The tagline for Dear White People, one of the most buzzed about movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival, reads "A satire about being a black face in a white space." The tagline resonated in Park City, Utah, a place where the snow is a good indicator of who you're going to meet wandering the festival.
My racial otherness would’ve been an afterthought, as it typically is (for me at least), had it not been for the countless people (and let’s be honest, they were all white) who asked me whether or not I’d seen Dear White People.
I didn't need the pestering. The movie, a comedy about four black Ivy League students, was already on my radar, as it parallels a familiar experience familiar to me—life as a black student at a predominantly white university. The film was extra personal since it was partially filmed on the campus of my alma mater, UCLA.
Now that I've seen it, I feel more uneasy than satisfied. I'd like to report otherwise, but writer-director Justin Simien's debut feature undermines its own efforts at generating an honest debate about race by pandering to white audiences.
To be fair, writer-director Justin Simien’s debut has its moments. The film is beautifully shot, has bursts of witty banter, and features some intriguing characters. But it lacks the cohesion of purpose needed to make it more than just a worthy Special Jury Award winner for Breakthrough Talent. More unsettling than the breakdown in narrative is the fact that Simien, during the screening's Q&A, created a peculiar distance between himself and any political agenda by repeatedly stating that his only intention in creating Dear White People was to “spark dialogue.” By curtain call, the “spark dialogue” explanation felt more like a thinly veiled excuse to make up for a confused film.
Despite the title's accusatory connotation, Dear White People actually provides a relatively safe space for non-blacks to laugh at their own seemingly innocuous random acts of racism by framing the assailants as harmless. This is in stark contrast to how the actions of the militant black student activists are often caricatured. Black nationalism is placed on the same level as non-black cultural insensitivity, ignorance, and racism—a completely unjustified comparison.
In Dear White People, the main conflict is that a Randomization of Housing Act threatens to render the black-themed student housing option obsolete. Recently, in real life, a major struggle for black students on these types of college campuses has not been overt racism, but, instead, institutionalized racism that has denied them the same levels of access as non-black students. Race-themed housing is just one of the many ways minority students foster support systems on those campuses. By neglecting to provide the context of the importance of black student housing options on campuses, and instead making it seem like the black kids want to self-segregate, Dear White People misses an important teaching moment at the expense of leveling the blame for racial tension. It's a not-so-subtle rally for multiculturalism.
At UCLA, diversity has been a long-standing issue. The university has a legacy and history of black activism and resistance—for good reason. When I wasn't being mistaken for a student athlete, I was actively involved in fostering a supportive and welcoming black community on campus for those few of us who made it through. Thus, many of the jokes in Dear White People resonated differently with me than the rest of the mostly non-black audience at Sundance.
There’s a scene where one of the white students claims that the hardest thing to be in the American job force is an educated white male, since all of the black kids (and he references Obama) are using affirmative action to their benefit and taking up spots that otherwise would go to a more qualified white student. The assumption obviously being that black students at an Ivy League institution don’t make it there on their own merits. While his overtly racist dogma is manipulated for laughs and serves as a clear indicator to white viewers of whom not to align with (the white savior figure would come later in the film), I couldn’t help but get upset that Sam White, one of the main protagonists, doesn’t have a better response to his accusations than offering up an apology for all of the white people whose spots they were taking and kicking him out of the dining hall.
Being someone who’s actually witnessed a white girl attribute a “large” black student population to affirmative action, and in the same year that UCLA made headlines for admitting the Infamous 96 (the smallest number of black students of any freshman class in decades, around 2.2%), the scene infuriated me. Although I received vindication in that lecture hall from the professor who politely enlightened her with the earth-shattering news that, in 1996, the ballot measure Prop 209 barred California state schools from considering race in employment or admissions, I didn’t receive that same vindication in the theater at Sundance.
Not that I was obligated to. The movie is a satire, and deals in stereotypes and caricatures. Still I can't help but feel that this particular subject matter seems uniquely different in consideration of typical black representation in popular media, and would be better served with a different form. Despite Simien’s disclaimer at the beginning of the film that the characters portrayed where “hyperreal,” when it comes down to a group of people who are so widely lampooned through mainstream media images that aren’t intended to be satirical, I think it would be quite difficult for anyone who gleaned their understanding of black culture through the same potentially negative entities that Simien references (BET, reality television, hip-hop music, Tyler Perry films etc.) to distinguish between character and caricature.
There’s another scene where, in a moment of frustration, CoCo, a black girl from the South Side of Chicago who wears a jet black straight weave, blue contact lenses, and ridiculously long eyelashes, says, “These people don’t give a fuck about no Harriett motherfucking Tubman." That reminded me of the time when one of my classmates spoke about the Underground Railroad as if it were an actual subterranean transit system. I wish I were making that up. I wish I had watched those moments from the safety of a seat in a movie theater. This is likely the exact type of emotion that Simien is trying to invoke, yet it was still an isolating feeling for me in a sea of Sundance attendees, who seemed like they were watching a completely different film. There were just as many times that I laughed alone as there were times when I was the only one not laughing. It wasn’t a situation where people were laughing at inappropriate times—again the movie is funny and there isn’t a single joke in there that anyone should feel uncomfortable laughing at. But who laughs and when is telling.
Dear White People culminates in a race-themed bash reminiscent of the Black Out Party, the one recently thrown by the white members of Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Those attending the TKE event were encouraged to wear jerseys, fitted baseball caps, bandanas, and other stereotypical attire while drinking out of watermelon cups. Conveniently the tasteless soiree made headlines just days prior to Dear White People’s premiere, making the film's closing scenes all the more relevant.
Justin Simien is bold. Tackling difficult subjects like racial tension and cultural identity formation is bound to elicit criticism from every direction. I applaud his efforts at even entering such a contentious arena. Simien, a noted Spike Lee fan, clearly positions Dear White People to be an updated version of the renown black filmmaker’s 1988 collegiate musical drama School Daze. Better that he had tried for the grit of Lee’s polemical satire on minstrelsy, Bamboozled.
Brooklyne Gipson (@Brooklyne) is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and graduate student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.