dir: Justin Simien, 2014
Anyone familiar with Black film history will immediately draw parallels with Dear White People and two of Spike Lee’s biggest films, School Daze and Do The Right Thing. While these parallels serve a historical and thematic purpose, I behoove you to move past them and try to take DWP as it stands, on its own terms and merit.
It’s important to do so because both of Lee’s films are, at this point, period pieces that encapsulated a certain performance and understanding of Blackness during their respective making and release. The conversations and endless pontification upon Blackness (as a performance, culture, and amorphous thing) have since multiplied and been affected by a generation of cultural incidents. Chief among these, would be the impact of social media and the rise of Pres. Obama. It is from within this storm of factors that we should view, and understand, DWP.
Okay…now that we have that out of the way.
The bedrock of this film is agency and how different modifiers of identity affect said agency, for good or bad. In most cases the chief modifier is of course, Blackness.
That being the case, DWP has fun with giving you the lay of the land pretty early. Broad strokes are used to paint the revolutionary blackity-black students and the racially-ambivalent-at-best white students of Winchester University. Lead (primarily) by central characters Sam and Kurt, these factions provide an easy polar dynamic that provide numerous funny moments.
These larger blocs also serve as the boundaries within which (most) characters define themselves racially (politically, etc), by choice or not. It’s in these choices that DWP embeds its central narrative strands, namely with Sam, Troy, Coco, and Lionel’s pursuit of a Blackness that’s compatible with their own desires and/or those of the people around them.
Ironically, most of them are also at times the weakest and most frustrating.
Troy’s fight to break out of his father’s respectability politics only lead him into ever-middling situations, and, by the end of the film he has progressed very little. In turn, Coco’s ambition leads her to enable the problematic comedy troupe, but why she yearns for the spotlight is still somewhat a mystery. And honestly, Reggie is an incredibly flat character all around.
On the other hand though, Sam and Lionel’s stories are the strongest.
Of particular note is Sam’s big revelation, by way of her Magical
negro White Boo™ . In the aftermath of a tense emotional moment, he exclaims that her participation in the blackity-black bloc is false, because she is much more complex than being a through and through blackity-black. At best, he claims, she is an anarchist who thrives off of conflict and shit-starting. This is later validated in the climactic act, but it presents a narrative tool that points to a deeper dialogue.
First off, while I get that the insights Magical White Boo™ draws are due to his closeness to Sam, it seems strange that in all her relationships (namely with Troy) no one knows her quite like him. On face value this feels cheap, especially given the awkward way the two lovers make good at the end of the film. But I think it actually hammers at a point that may go over many people’s heads: the concept of vulnerability as it relates to the performance and adoption of Blackness as identity.
Blackness, and the idea of a black coolness is often informed/built by a lack of vulnerability. By masking yourself in this, you create an emotional shield that prevents the outside world from knowing your inner self, whatever it may be. This emotional dearth is interpreted as a coolness by outsiders. This is because it disguises the link between self and any given action, thus creating a distancing persona that often enraptures (or offends) the (often white) observer.
Sam willingly carries this shield, or coolness, throughout the majority of the film. She’s always spouting rhetoric, engaging with whoever she believes challenges her belief or existence. And it’s good. In many ways, she serves up much needed truth to everyone in the film. At the same time though, this performance is mocked and enforced by her peers and blackity-black counterparts respectively. (Chief among them is Reggie, whose supposed love for Sam is actually a lust for the frenetic political energy she commands.)
In spite of all this there are cracks in the shield, most often seen when she becomes emotionally compromised. And, ultimately, this shield comes down (and her Blackness is remade) when she accepts herself (and vulnerability) in the film’s summation.
With it, we get mixed messages. On one hand, we receive a crash course on the struggle to define one’s (black) identity in modern-day America. On the other hand, the film seems to advocate anarchy as a route to change. The problem there is that that opens an entirely different can of worms, chief among them the politics of accountability. The mystery of who sent the invite then feels like a cheap and convenient device for Sam’s narration, and the film. But, it doesn’t answer the question: how do we make (white) people less racist?
Now, at this point I’m going throw my theory out there: to a certain extent that’s not our (see: black folks’) problem.
In a way, DWP is a message to white folks. A window that allows them to peer into the lives of black folk, while also giving them a message. The contents of that message however, as Sam realizes, lies in the viewer, not the messenger. Black folk can only say/do so much to fight and break down racism, among the many other ism’s. It is the responsibility of the white viewer to look in on themselves, their white friends, their friends, and their community, and see the problems that need solving.
Thus, as I see it, Dear White People is a couple things. First, it is a cautionary tale for black folk about the many traps of co-signing a monolithic Blackness. Second, it is a mirror lifted to white folks, asking them to see our problems as we know them, and themselves as we (all too often) understand them to be. On a more cinematic note, DWP is by no means the be-all, end-all film on race. No film will ever be. I believe however that it handled a subject that is often overlooked (black experiences in a predominantly white collegiate environment). In turn, more films like it should happen in order to continue diversifying the market aimed primarily black audiences.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope