“Dear White People” & The Black History Question

It’s February, which means it’s that time of year when calendars remind everyone that it’s time to talk about black people again. Race is a subject, especially in America, that still is the cause of much debate, and though discrimination and racial issues aren’t seasonal, Black History Month seems to be the only time when the media pays them any attention. One film that seeks to address some of the racial tensions that continue to exist is writer-director Justin Simien’s Dear White People. Some people, especially on the internet, have found the stark title to be accusatory and too general, but Simien insists that the film is not about racism, but instead the process of understanding one’s own identity in a world where systematic racism is built into our culture. All the rage at Sundance this year, Dear White People is a satire, set at the fictional Manchester University, which features an ensemble of four diverse young black students trying to find their own place at a predominantly white Ivy League school, especially after controversy surrounds a “black” themed party thrown by white students (a scandal based on real events).

The film, which attempts to provide a glimpse of black life in a “post-racial” America, has just recently been heralded as a must-see by the film folks in Park City, Utah but has been garnering a fan base since the movie’s trailer debuted online in 2012. The low-budget trailer grew into a feature-length film with the financial help of IndieGogo, a crowd-funding website, encouraging producers to jump on the bandwagon. Justin Simien began his campaign by starting with a simple Twitter handle, @DearWhitePeople, where he both voiced some of his own complaints and tested out the voice of one of the film’s characters, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a biracial student with a controversial radio show also called “Dear White People.”  Simien’s resulting script is a combination of his own college experiences and those of friends and was inspired by Spike Lee’s School Daze, to which critics have naturally drawn parallels. In addition to following the antics of the increasingly militant Sam, the film also shows us son-of-the-dean Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) as he tries to remedy his own identity with his place in a racially insensitive frat, shy journalist Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) tasked with covering the growing tensions on campus, and the fame-hungry Coco Conner (Teyonah Parris).

The film works to draw attention to and satirize the stereotypes the media feeds us in the form of reality shows and Tyler Perry movies in order to educate and entertain simultaneously. Though the film has yet to be released for public consumption, it does bring up issues of race not just in mainstream America but also in Hollywood. The film and television industry is constantly being scolded, and rightly so, for the lack of diversity in movies and on TV, and for one-dimensional portrayals of the few non-white characters. On one hand, Hollywood has been working to remedy this, as fantastic black actors, take newcomers Michael B Jordan (Fruitvale Station) and Lupita Nyong’o (potential Best Supporting Actress winner this year for 12 Years A Slave) for example, have been making a name for themselves in the film world, as well Kerry Washington’s Emmy nominated performance as the high-powered DC fixer Olivia Pope on the TV show Scandal. That’s all well and good, but on the other hand, what does it say about Hollywood, about the media, that both breakout performances were for roles regarding the societal subjugation of black people? And why is it that the portrayal of an intelligent black woman leading a successful career in Washington D.C. is considered so novel in 2014?

It’s not the job of Dear White People to answer these questions, nor is it trying to, though the film is part of the discussion. Race has been talked about, is being talked about, and will continue to be talked about until the entire human race inevitably becomes the same shade of tan. The conversation about stereotypes, discrimination, and confronting ignorance continues, and all Justin Simien is trying to do is help perpetuate this conversation.

This article, though about the role of black people existing within a white culture, is not so much written in honor of Black History Month as it is despite it. Black History Month is a consolation prize, which exists solely to tick the “we talked about diversity” box on the nation’s to-do list. By having its own month, Black History is inexorably separated from American History, something that’s up for discussion any time of year, and perpetuates the “otherness” that black people have been made to feel for hundreds of years. But that’s a whole other conversation, and this is a blog about movies. Overall, Dear White People seems to be a promising new comedy that has managed to spark some serious discussion, which is never a bad thing. Similarly I hope we can expect big things from Justin Simien, who now has an almost guaranteed hit on his hands when the film is released later this year. Who knows, by then maybe we’ll see a difference in what it means to be a “black face in a white place.”

Article by Nia Howe-Smith


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