“Dear White People,” an independent film written, directed and produced by Justin Simien is “a satire about being a Black face in a very white place,” according to the website that Simien and his team has used to raised funds to finance the project. “With tongue planted firmly in cheek, says the site, “the film will explore racial identity in ‘post-racial’ America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world.”
In Simien’s three-minute clip, the audience is invited to follow the lives of the Black students attending a factitious Ivy League school, Manchester University. The film’s plot is centered on events that follow an on-campus riot spurred by an “African American themed party” thrown by white students. The film has raised some $10,000 more than its original $25,000 goal.
Manchester’s White students are (notably) nameless in the trailer, suggesting that the story is told through the perspectives of the film’s Black characters: Sam, who hosts an on-campus radio show (also called “Dear White People”); Lionel and Coco, identified as a social outsiders within Manchester’s black community; and Troy, who is coming to terms with issues surrounding his interracial relationship.
The film aims to deconstruct racial stereotypes, but depends heavily on them. Sam’s role as the conscious rabble rouser on campus, and Lionel’s as the proverbial preppy “Black friend” who likes White women, appear time and time again in pop culture. Simien’s trailer does little to suggest that he will make either of these archetypes more likeable (or human) for audiences, which is an unfortunate missed opportunity to unpack what makes these characters – or these types of people – tick. Sam, the film’s protagonist, seems particularly unbearable as her arrogance drags on. Her radio show, also called “Dear White People,” provides a platform to take lazy jabs at the White student body on all the usual offenses: telling them to stop touching her hair, notifying them that there’s been a change in the number of Black friends required to avoid charges of racism, and asking them to stop dancing.
Characters in the Black ‘art house’ film are heavily stylized in the visual legacies of John Singleton and Spike Lee (whose films are noted as inspirations as toward the trailer’s end) with production choices that stand out – “conscious” characters are easily identified with natural hair, horn rimmed glasses, and are noticeably all the same café au lait complexion. The sole dark skinned woman in the clip (who plays Coco, obviously), wears a weave and lots of makeup. And of course, the antagonist White characters all look like poster children for a Ralph Lauren campaign (presumably to make their privilege more tangible) and are written as either painfully clueless and/or obnoxious. A White female student calls Coco a “bitch” in a way that is meant to be endearing, then follows abruptly by asking her if her hair is “weaved.” A few camera shots later, she’s tracing her finger down Troy’s naked back while lying next to him in bed.
The most interesting topic that Simien’s trailer addresses is intra-racial conflict that exists within the Black community on the issue of who owns blackness. The conscious students question whether Lionel is “black enough” to join the school’s Black Student Union, and later, Coco reminds Sam “there isn’t a right way to be black, sister.”
“That is our challenge,” says the voiceover. “How to be bigger than Black when there is no word for it, when there is no precedent in the culture.”
And here lies the inherent problem with “Dear White People” and many of its contemporaries, which are far less progressive than they model themselves to be. The characters are locked into very rigid models of what “Blackness” looks like on screen – even when they’re challenging one another’s definitions. They’re equally ungenerous to depictions of Whites. The content suffers and does do little to push racial conversations forward, especially when “White people” are anonymous and monolithic in their representation. Our community’s cultural curators must do more to expand the depictions of people of color and Whites to usher in genuine and reformative conversations about race. Perhaps then we can arrive at a truer notion of what “post-racialism” means for Blacks in America – not to forget race exists, but, rather, to expand notions of what is means to be Black by allowing for fluidity in Black identity and space for Black individualism. Blackness is not something that happens in response to White folks or racism, nor should it be exploited or confined by a legacy of oppression.
Blackness is not a performance.
In order to face our challenge, to be bigger than black, and set a new precedent for blackness, black people should do what Simien says his film intends – forge their own unique paths in the world.