One of the great ironies of Justin Simien’s masterful directorial debut, Dear White People, which released in theaters nationwide this last weekend, is that although it’s aimed at white people, it’s not about white people.
And just now as I was writing, I was tempted to use another, less weaponized-sounding verb, but truly, “aimed” is the right choice, because Dear White People is relentless in its depiction of white people as alternately clueless, ambivalent or calculatingly sinister regarding the racial issues on display at fictional ivy-league school Winchester University. And I mean that as a compliment.
In ways both obvious and subtle, it makes Big Important Pronouncements about race, and then uses those pronouncements both as occasional comedic sketch premises, but also as plot devices to flesh out the emotional development of its main characters, all of whom are either black or biracial. The combination of the two, the thematic heavy-handedness modulated by a playful tone of nimble vignettes with varying emotional intensity… it’s quite a balancing act to pull off, akin to performing surgery with a shotgun.
The fact that Dear White People is mostly about black people might, all by itself, be a bit of a shock to the system for the average film viewer who’s accustomed to seeing black people usually in supporting roles. I suspect it is this fact that has caused a few people in my social media feeds to claim that its title is a misnomer — an idea to which I vehemently object. It is precisely because this film is such a vivacious, daring, charming and, dare-I-say poignant look at black people in general, and black intellectuals specifically, that white people need to see it.
I mean, really, there are so few portrayals of us on the silver screen at all, much less portrayals of this quality. And frankly, if these kinds of jokes make you uncomfortable, then you probably need to see it. Some of it made me uncomfortable, and I talk about race all the time. A.O. Scott wrote the following in his New York Times review:
“You will want to talk about [this movie] afterward, even if the conversation feels a little awkward. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.”
So in case the title of this post wasn’t clear enough, umm… white people? I’mma need you to see this movie.
I’m going to skip a lot of the typical movie-review format where, after describing the premise, I outline the details of the main characters, what their motivations are, and how the actors portrayed them. They all did a great job. Seriously, every one of them. Plenty of other reviewers have covered that territory, so if that’s what you want, here’s DWP’s Metacritic page — have at it.
Instead, I’ll offer this thought — less of a meta-critique and more of a strategic observation — that, in the same way that TV shows like “Black-ish “are preordained to be compared with “The Cosby Show,” this film’s most obvious influence is Spike Lee’s feature-length college film, School Daze, which, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, is enjoying its silver anniversary and is rumored for a long-awaited sequel. But this comparison is mostly worthless without acknowledging the evolution of black campus life between these two cultural touchstones.
In School Daze, the characters were going through typical college coming-of-age rituals at a fictional HBCU — a historically black college or university. And those with even a cursory grasp of history should get that the existence of HBCUs are not, as some ignorant mouth breathers might imply, part of some liberal PC campaign, but rather a direct result of our national history of subjugation and disenfranchisement of black people on the basis of our racial identity. That is to say, HBCUs were, for the most part, founded as a way for black folks to educate our own during an era when we were not allowed in white institutions of higher learning.
Thus, the difference between then and now is that in Dear White People, we as an audience are viewing black intellectuals — the talented tenth, if you will — engaging in the same growing pains and comings-of-age, but as people of color trying to find their way in a historically white institution. Thus, the main underlying dramatic tension of the film is an amplified version of the internal conflict that all the black students face, between resisting and succumbing to assimilation into the broader American (read: white) culture.
This conflict is illustrated all throughout the film, but nowhere more clearly than in the conflict surrounding Winchester’s historically black residence hall (named “Armstrong Parker,” one of the film’s more understated jazz references), a portrayed as one of the few remaining bastions of black identity. It also helps to give more weight and explanation to the film’s racesplaining title (yes, I did just coin that term) — this film doesn’t exist simply to lecture or shame white people into a politically-correct posture of submission, but to illustrate in lovingly-rendered, three-dimensional ways that the history of blacks in America has always been written in reference to white people. Thus, even a film as centered around the black experience as this one must, for reasons both ideological and practical, come to depict blackness not merely on its own terms but also blackness-in-reference-to-whiteness.
Which is why, not only does it deserve to be seen by plenty of white people of its own merits as a film… but why ***I*** need you to see it.
You see, blackness-in-reference-to-whiteness is, to put it bluntly, the story of my life. From my upbringing at a prestigious private high school, to my undergraduate education at a historically Swedish protestant university, to my identity as a multicultural worship leader, and more recently as a stand-up comic, I have spent the better part of almost four decades of life on this earth trying to make peace with what it means to be, as the tagline puts it, “a black face in a white place.” And if you’re white, there is an element of this that you will not understand unless you choose to immerse yourself in that sense of alienated exclusivity. Although I am no longer in the targeted age range (this film depicts millennials and I’m a late Gen-X-er), the issues still rang true for me, loud and clear.
Frankly, there’s only one thing that’s more fundamental to my sense of identity and calling, and that’s my faith as a Christian.
Which brings me, to my last reason.
If you’re white, and you’re a Christian, and you want to be my friend, then I especially need you to see this film.
Because the truth is, as someone who strives to be both authentically Christian and multiculturally competent in both my personal and professional life, I’m in the process of becoming a leader in my community, both on-and-offline. In the last 6 months alone, I’ve gotten so many messages, both public and private, from my Facebook feed from people who want to know what I think about this or that, or how they should respond to this or that racial issue or controversy. And I say that not as a burden, but as a privilege! I am grateful that people who know and trust me are reaching out and asking me share my experiences and perspective.
But the truth is, I’m still just one guy. I still have faults and frustrations and pet issues and blind spots just like anyone else. And there might be times when I lash out, or when I am slow to forgive, or when I’m quick to accuse someone else of wrongdoing. Sometimes I can be a little too sarcastic or flippant with the way that I deal with race and racial issues. I try not to be, but sometimes I get mad and just say “screw it.” And in those moments, I’ll be honest, I’ll most likely be sinning in my response.
But the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia about how to deal with people who are caught in sin, and I think it applies here. In Galatians 6:2, he instructs them to carry one another’s burdens.
White people, when you see me flipping out over the next racial incident, whether it be a national news story, or something lower-key and/or closer to home, I need you to be able to contextualize my response in the broader history of race in America. I need you to see that when I’m upset, it’s not just about that one comment or poor choice of words or statistical disparity or police incident or offensive commercial or whatever. It’s about everything that goes along with it, everything that came before it, and everything that will follow. I need you to be willing to carry that burden along with me and others like me.
So one thing you can do to help equip yourself in that process is to see Dear White People. And do it now, while it’s still in theaters, because if you don’t go soon, it’ll be gone before you know it.
But what if I’ve already seen it, you ask?
Then tell me what you thought in the comments, duh.