Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014): Flawed but Important

While most contemporary films like to neatly sidestep ‘real life issues’, or douse them in metaphors so deep that the actual issue is no longer represented as such, ‘Dear White People’ does neither. When I say ‘real life issues’, what I mean in this context is sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination. A vast amount of films enjoy discussing bigotry but only if it doesn’t actually involve a conversation between people of varying ethnicities and skin colour. Instead, it’s usually dressed up in some metaphor to establish how we should actually be treating one another and why prejudice is wrong (see ‘King Kong’, ‘X-Men’, ‘District 9’ or 99% of sci-fi films). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but ‘Dear White People’ has such a refreshing honesty and frankness about it, I couldn’t understand why this discussion has not happened before now. Predominantly, I suppose, because a conversation about race with white people could stand to make a lot of the film’s audience angry or frustrated (commonly due to the white guilt phenomenon) and many major cinema distributors will not take that risk. Fortunately for us, ‘Dear White People’ was almost entirely crowdfunded by indie filmmaker Justin Simien. The power of independent cinema, people.

‘Dear White People’ focuses on the experiences of four African American students as they negotiate their way through college life and everything that comes with it. Sam (Tessa Thompson), an outspoken activist, hosts a radio show titled ‘Dear White People’, which satirises cliches and stereotypes often with uncomfortable consequences for the show’s listeners. Sam is then, surprisingly, elected as head of the Armstrong/Parker house at their Ivy League university. Sam is not universally liked or seen as the voice of the black community, and the film looks at the reactions that other characters have to her method of activism, whilst building up to the climax – a frat party with the theme ‘Liberate Your Inner Negro’. Simien chooses to follow four different students throughout the build up to the party, each with very different experiences of life within a predominantly white Ivy League school; Sam, Lionel (Tyler James Williams), Coco(Teyonah Parris) and Troy (Brandon P. Bell). There are other peripheral characters, but the narrative is tightly focused around these four.

I really, really wanted to like ‘Dear White People’. I really did. I had great expectations for it and maybe that was part of the problem. Simien’s film has a lot of really great moments throughout it, but the main issue is that these moments just do not connect together in a coherent or constructed way. The narrative doesn’t feel established, and therefore it’s hard to piece together the scenes and characters, however hard you try.

Having said that, there were some truly standout moments – the likes of which cinema hasn’t seen in a long time. As I said earlier, ‘Dear White People’ forces us to have a conversation about race, and some of that conversation talks about representation and the media industry. What Sam discusses is reiterated by the film itself – ‘Dear White People’ has an incredibly diverse cast, the kind of diversity almost never seen in Hollywood or contemporary cinema. It highlights the racial issues by actually challenging them with it’s casting, rather than just having a bunch of white people discussing it. There is also some really interesting depth and development throughout the film, especially with characters such as Lionel and Troy. Lionel, who is probably the film’s actual protagonist although you may be fooled into thinking it’s Sam, is an African American student, who also happens to be gay. Again, we can discuss representation because ‘Dear White People’ actually wants to explore Lionel’s identity as a gay, black man. What Simien’s does very well is to interlink issues of racism and homophobia, and allow the audience to realise that these are not separate issues for Lionel – his identity and self-worth is very much a product of both. Lionel feels detached from the black community due to stereotypes surrounding both black men (macho, aggressive) and gay men (camp and effeminate). For Lionel, and other students around him, the two cannot coincide and so Lionel is left very much on the outside of both communities.

The other great thing about Lionel’s character is our ability to empathise with him, effectively making him a window for the audience to see into this world through. Lionel is a bystander to begin with, a passive observer drawn to the Armstrong/Parker house due to a desire to befriend the University’s journalism team. He, like us, is learning about the house, the black community and the racial tensions at Winchester University. Lionel is sympathetic, and therefore an easy in for audiences. He also becomes impassioned to help Sam in her cause to prove the institutional racism that exists within Winchester, and his character develops throughout the film. He begins observing, and ends as the films champion.

Unfortunately, it is within Sam’s character arc and development that ‘Dear White People’ really falls down. Sam is an underdeveloped character. Although we initially follow her, we are led to believe that perhaps she goes too far, isn’t always reliable as a protagonist and the film finds it hard to identify with her – possibly because of her outspokenness. These elements are not issues in themselves, it’s perfectly normal to have a protagonist with whom we do not identify but Sam’s character remains severely underdeveloped throughout the film. The additional storyline of Sam’s Dad’s illness is poorly executed, and generally quite irrelevant to the rest of the film. It’s like the writers decided that she needed a reason as to why was so angry and behaving so ‘irrationally’. So, racism isn’t enough of a reason? It’s a shame because Sam could easily have been the most interesting and a truly unique character, but instead she because a walking quote book – all of her dialogue revolves her saying something profound and she becomes incredibly predictable and two dimensional. Don’t get me wrong, some of her speeches had me punching the air in delight, but it felt that we never scratched beyond the surface of who Sam actually was. Everything she says is really relevant and really quite accurate but the fact is, Sam only exists in this film to say these things – her character is nothing more than a badly written trope. Simien clearly attempts to give Sam a well rounded character with her father and her relationships with Gabe and Reggie. The problem with this is that, essentially, Sam is bookended and defined by her relationship to the men of the film. Possibly the worst part of ‘Dear White People’ is the ending: Sam gives a rom-com style speech to Gabe about how much she loves him (using a long and tedious analogy about her dying father to reiterate the point) which is so unlike her character it’s unbelievable, and then to top it all off – she decides to end her radio show. It’s almost as if, because Sam decides to reunite with her white boyfriend, racism simply doesn’t matter anymore. It’s a total 180, and makes it incredibly hard to invest in Sam’s character at all. It’s a real disappointment, Sam brings intelligence and wit to the film in a huge way, but I just feel her character is completely let down by the lack of development, especially towards the end of the film.

What was most interesting, and rarely seen in cinema, is the different identities that Troy, Sam, Lionel and Coco negotiated throughout the film. As a result of the racism and horrendous stereotyping that exists in Hollywood, we usually only see one ‘type’ of African American in cinema. In ‘Dear White People’, the message was very clear – we are not all the same. It was incredibly refreshing to see how Coco negotiated race and identity, in comparison to Sam and in comparison again to Troy and Lionel. How their various backgrounds, academic talent and personal affiliation with the black community meant that they navigated very different paths through the film. What was slightly disappointing was the play-off between Coco and Sam, it would have been really nice (and progressive) to see two black women who had each other’s backs, not at each other’s throats. Lionel and Troy ended up bonding and overcoming their differences in the face of racism (cutting each others hair), and it would have been great to see Coco and Sam do the same. In a way pitting the girls at opposite ends of the ‘political spectrum’ does actually work by showing the vast ways in which racism works to discriminate against black people. In actuality though, it ensures that ‘Dear White People’ will never show the benefits of when women work together instead of tearing each other down.

Maybe ‘Dear White People’ didn’t hit all the marks, and maybe it left more to be desired in terms of structure and coherence. Regardless, it is still an incredibly important film that is having an incredibly important conversation that we, as white people, need to start listening to. It may not win film-of-the-year award, but I’m sure glad it got made and it’s out there.

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