Dear White People could not have come at a more appropriate time.
In a year where fatal police shootings of unarmed black men and boys highlighted buried racial tensions and cultural divisions that directly contradicted the “post-racial America” myth, Justin Simien’s outspoken lucidity on the damaging effects of that myth and observant eye for the intricacies of interpersonal relations are both relevant and very necessary. With the same compassion Gregg Araki displayed in Totally Fucked Up’s picture of youthful queer anger and anxiety in the Reagan-Bush Sr. years, Simien points out the tragic paradox that makes racism such a persistently deceptive and immortal foe: That the tendency to wear masks in order to please ourselves and other people is what marks us all as human as well as one of the primary causes of our division.
Simien does not share Araki’s formal kinetic radicalism – his diluted colours, mid-focals, still shots and shot/countershot editing choices are at times as much reminiscent of Internet shorts as they are of mainstream American independent film – so the nuance behind the seemingly inflammatory nature of his title and his female protagonist Samantha White (a militant black student who hosts a political talk show of the same title) is a little more visible than in Araki’s film, where the anarchic frenzy of visual styles and revolutionary intertitles initially appeared to embrace his characters’ façade of snarky cynicism before peeling it away to reveal the fear and pain behind it – all without losing an inch of understanding or even agreement with their feelings. However, Simien’s razor-sharp script and keen seizure of human emotional shifts more than make up for his occasionally prosaic visual style. A little closer to John Cassavetes’s Shadows in his understanding of people’s behaviour and the reasons behind them than Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Simien understands the difficulties we all experience in reconciling our principles with our desires, our civil identity with our private one.
With the unfortunate exception of the white racist responsible for the African-American-themed Halloween party and his University President father, both of whom are stereotyped as arrogant snobbish strawmen without any further depth to them, none of Dear White People’s major characters are exactly what they seem to be. All of them are distinguished by inner conflicts stemming from either an inability to know what it is they want or a contradiction between what they know is right and what feels right to them. Samantha White’s inner discord is embodied in her very name, the irony of which is never directly addressed but certainly isn’t lost on her. Through her provocative talk show, political outspokenness and coolly confrontational public persona, Samantha has built herself an identity as “everybody’s angry black chick” that her unforeseen election as president of her house forces her to live up to. Her frustration at white ignorance and privilege denial is undoubtedly authentic, but even before she argues with a liberal white film student all the way to bed, her dialogue beats and onyx-like eyes subtly give away hints that she may be less certain of the degree of her commitment than she’d like to admit. The casting of Tessa Thompson as this particularly complex character is one of Simien’s strokes of brilliance. In almost every scene in which she is physically present, her unvoiced fears and doubts leak in small quantities through her eyes, voice and posture, without contradicting the fundamental sincerity of her convictions. It’s a performance that renders the complex interplay of the heart and mind with singular accuracy.
The other main protagonist, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), has a simpler development (he goes from the passive recipient of white exploitation and hair-touching to the main instigator of the reaction against the party) but it’s the confused wariness with which he reacts to his boss’s backhanded remarks and flirtation that builds him as a character. From what I have gathered, he is essentially the person Justin Simien was at the same age – a mild-mannered young gay black man who, despite sporting a large afro that gets unwanted attention from students both black and white, doesn’t feel especially concerned about racial politics. But to dwell too much on the possible autobiographical nature of Lionel’s character would be a disservice to him. Beyond race or sexuality, his growing awareness of how certain aspects of his identity cause people to have certain expectations of him or alter their behaviour towards him is something that all of us, in some way or other, are familiar with.
This is the essence of Dear White People’s power: Justin Simien’s recognition of each person’s individual identity beyond racial, sexual or gender characteristics, and the complexity of the games we play with them in order to fit in a society historically dominated by white heterosexual men. Whether it’s Coco Conners (a superb Teyonah Parris) seemingly sacrificing her “blackness” (for most of the film she sports long sleek hair that, in a pivotal montage of frontal shots, is revealed as a wig hiding more “African” short hair) to gain more widespread appeal in the hopes of becoming a Reality TV star, the black Dean’s son Troy (Brandon P. Bell) being pressured by his father into dating the white President’s daughter and mingling with his son in order to further his career, or the pressure Samantha feels from fellow black students into living up to her promise, all these characters navigate a maze of complications created by the prejudices and presumptions of the white-dominated culture as well as the expectations they place on their own selves based on their skin colour and/or sexuality. They may not have started the fire1 but they have been unwittingly keeping it alight, even in their attempts to extinguish it. And Justin Simien provides no easy solution for that outcome to happen, as there doesn’t appear to be any for the moment. What he does provide is a comprehensive survey of the many subtle and multifaceted ways racism and basic human needs perpetuate misunderstanding and disunion even in the most seemingly progressive environments. It’s this refreshing maturity that places Dear White People in such honoured company as Shadows, Do The Right Thing, No Way Out, American History X and White Dog in the pantheon of America’s most artistically and politically important films about race.
1All apologies to Billy Joel.