Dear White People follows four Black students as they as construct their identities at a prestigious White university while grappling with its omnipresent institutional and interpersonal racism. For Black people that attended predominantly White schools, the characters’ experiences—racial microaggressions, intergroup confrontations, and campus-wide controversies—will be immediately familiar.
Personally, I recall more of those experiences than I could reasonably list here. Among them was the “Martin Luther King Cobra” party (a nod to the once-popular 40-ounce malt liquor) in celebration of MLK Day. There was the infamous “Buckwheat Sings” caption in the campus newspaper, which compared the Little Rascals character to American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini and helped to set the stage for a full-scale boycott. And then there was one of many blatant attacks on the simple presence of Black students, like the Affirmative Action Bake Sale, where a White student group offered cookies to students of color at reduced prices.
My experiences as a freshman at the University of Michigan transpired more than 10 years ago, but the success of DWP is that it undoubtedly speaks to the lived experiences of many Black students today. From the Compton Cookout thrown by UC San Diego students (featured in the montage that accompanies the film’s closing credits) to the Michigan students’ threat to revive protest movements that began in the 1960s, Black students continue to confront the relentless assaults on their very existence at institutions of higher education. That DWP so stylishly and charismatically portrays such diverse experiences is reason enough to see the film.
But Dear White People is a deceptive accomplishment. Despite its success in accurately portraying so many of the indignities that Black students encounter, and in realistically channeling the emotional currents that flow from such experiences, viewers are left without a palpable sense of the filmmaker’s investment in change. Immediately after viewing the film, some may sense that they are better informed, or better equipped, to confront the racial challenges of our day, but they will find that sense amorphous and, ultimately, ephemeral.
The film seems to acknowledge its detachment from the issues it presents. Various bits of dialogue suggest that artists should “hold a mirror to their audiences, instead of dropping cannon balls on their heads” and that “satire is the weapon of reason.” But whether this film is showing up for the job of construction or deconstruction, those tools seem an ill fit to the task.
I felt myself longing for that timeless scene—the kind that sits in your stomach and lodges itself in your brain—that actually makes you think hard about racism and its consequences. But there’s no Black man being told to put his mouth on the curb, and Radio Raheem isn’t murdered at the end. It’s hard to imagine what would be left if the Blackface party that anchors the movie got cut. (Writer and Director Justin Simien admits that he thought the scene might be “too taboo.”)
American racism is like a chameleon—it is far too adaptable to be threatened by casual examination. DWP’s informal, glib manner will ultimately be cause for not taking it seriously. Art that doesn’t put up a fight is easily forgotten. As one writer notes, DWP’s “lack of serious political confrontation . . . leaves its sympathetic viewers thinking that their sympathy is enough, that the mere existence of the film, and their enthusiasm for it, is a mark of social progress.” But, of course, it is not.
The problem is that the film gives us little to advance our ongoing conversations about race. Instead, we get a few comical quotes that, in the end, leave viewers feeling awkwardly jovial. It’s as if everyone gets a bottle of the latest zero-calorie energy drink. Black viewers get Diet Angry Black —the satisfaction of having skewered White racism with a few zingers, but without a directive toward the difficult work of following through. White viewers get White Guilt Zero—a two-hour finger-wagging without the burden of being compelled to do anything after being reprimanded. Baking a pumpkin pie might suffice.
Dear White People’s approach is as well manicured and sterile as its aesthetic. No one gets dirty. The film does not prod or provoke; it merely observes. It does not judge its characters and does not invite us to do so. But its neutral, hands-off style fosters an uncomfortable emptiness and leaves nothing poignant to fill the void.
George C. Gardner III is a Detroit native living in Brooklyn. He contributes to EBONY’s “Ask a Lawyer” column and maintains a solo practice in New York. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @ggiii.