In a time of online views, shares, likes, instant messaging, apps for everything, and reality TV, Dear White People is as much about DIY micro-celebrity as race. Catching the technological and social zeitgeist in which personal identity and public image converge and get lost in each other, the film could have just as appropriately been titled Dear People, Dear USA, or Dear World.
Set in a fictitious elite US University with a majority white student body, and centred around the lead-up to and aftermath of a party with a seemingly ghetto fabulous themed party urging invitees to “unleash your inner negro”, Dear White People, if the three trailers are anything to go by, promises to give a good ass-kicking to every white person who thinks it’s fun to ape, appropriate, and yet alienate black people. Except, of course, like any good satire, the film holds up a mirror to the society it seeks to represent and, in so doing, could also just as appropriately been titled Dear Black People.
From the “mulatto” (tragic or otherwise) overcompensating for being a privileged half-white person by becoming a militant, honky-hating (in public, anyway) black activist; to the “self-hating” desperate to be seen, noticed, or even acknowledged, dark chocolate sister with the long silky weave trying to distance herself from her ghetto roots; to the handsome hunk of chocolate who’s suave, debonair, and, among his white friends at least, is the definition of cool, even as he struggles to live up to his father’s values and dreams for him; to the non-consensus, only technically black dude who isn’t confident or camp enough to fit into the gay crowd, but isn’t ‘down’ enough to fit into the black crowd either… It’s these dear black people whose foibles are laid bare, motivations explored, and upon whom the main focus of the film is, as we watch them prodded and poked into action. And let’s not forget the chorus of proud young black people who find comfort in numbers and are ever seeking a leadership to speak for them and tell it like it is.
The film has everything that discerning black audiences claim to want to see more of, but which the Hollywood machine seems to be afraid of portraying: Good-looking, well-spoken, educated, smart, clean black people keeping it real… in a bourgie kind of way, at least. However, this film is really not about pulling white people off of their high horse and telling them like it is, or calling them out for their ignorance or denial of racism, or even guilt-tripping them for their white privilege. Whilst the very mention of the supposed post-racial America makes my eyes roll involuntarily, it has to be acknowledged that probably the most trying thing some of the dear black people in Dear White People face is being denied the career-kick-starting recommendations some of their white peers are destined to receive. While this isn’t a good thing, given America’s history, it’s hardly surprising. No real story there then, although it’s enough to reel some people in.
The real issue at the centre of Dear White People is finding a comfortable seat at the table of white establishment or, indeed, inveigling an invitation to said table. There’s also the option of refusing an invite, yet side-eying the table as you circle it with defiantly clenched fist. Dear White People adroitly examines the ways in which middle class black America navigates the terrain of a wider society it still doesn’t quite feel comfortable in, was never really cordially invited into, but to which many of its number long to be included in, or at least have the opportunity to turn down on its own terms. Sadly, any option seems to involve, at best, a popularity contest or, at worst, a fanonesque crisis of identity which pits self-awareness with public persona and/or group, tribal, community or public opinion. It raises questions of holding onto any semblance of black cultural identity in the face of white mainstream micro-aggressions — real, made-up, or imagined — which rely heavily on perceived black stereotypes which, in turn, raise the need for a show of black consensus, authenticity, dignity, and exemplary achievement, resulting in a simplification of the notion of blackness on all fronts, and all at the expense of individual being and real self-determination.
Many will no doubt want to compare writer and director, Justin Simien, with Spike Lee. There are nods to Lee, thematically at least — the racial tension (albeit, lite) and anger, of Do The Right Thing, the inappropriate cultural appropriation, albeit more abrasive than in Bamboozled. However, without wanting to give too much away, there’s a somewhat unexpected moment which evokes a “wait… what?!” similar to a particular moment in Lars von Trier’sManderlay, which reveals how racial politics can be, and is, used to both expose and manipulate. Simien is, however, less heavy-handed then either Lee or von Trier; and is neither as “angry” as Lee once was, nor as fundamentally shocking as von Trier. Simien does more than just point out the injustices of society. Whilst certainly provocative, rather than just holding up a mirror to society, Simien leads his characters, black and white, to the brink of the pool of narcissism and gives them a little nudge to see if they’ll drown, sink or swim.
Borrowing possible quiz answers from the film, middle class black people have three options for navigating life in western society (or, indeed, any society in which they’re a minority): (a) oofta [oophta?], (b) nose-job, or (c) 100%. You may need to see the film to get a breakdown of what these mean but, suffice to say, I’d rate Dear White People a smart, humorously eviscerating, but critically thought provoking 100%.
Post script: Oh, and no – white people don’t come away smelling of roses. They’re just not the main focus, even though their ever predominant presence necessitates the very notion of blackness.
Both screenings of Dear White People at this year’s London Film Festival, on October 9th and 10th, are sold out. However, it’s definitely worth catching if or whenever you can.
Dear White People opens in the USA on October 17, 2014