In many black homes, parents give their children “The Talk.” It covers everything from how full capitulation during interactions with cops can save your life to how some whites will be convinced they know everything about you before they even know your name, to how you will often have to work twice as hard to get half as much. What James Baldwin described as discovering “the weight of white people in the world” is a key component of “The Talk.” It is a primer coat slathered onto black skin to inure it against the words and stares and slights of the white world.
“Dear White People” is writer/director Justin Simien’s version of “The Talk” if it were delivered to white men, women, and children: a dressing-down of this “white man’s world,” an airing of grievances, and a demand for accountability.
Set at the fictional Ivy League clone Winchester University, “Dear White People” follows four black students whose paths converge on account of their being black faces in a white place: Sam White (Tessa Thompson), Winchester’s perennial shit-starter and host of the popular campus radio show that shares the film’s name; Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), the brother without a country with the “Maggot Brain” ’fro and not even a fraction of the swag; Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), resident sister-in-denial and aspiring reality star; and Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), who is what would happen if Cam Newton and Barack smanged and had a kid. These characters are variations on a theme, in varying degrees self-aware, self-assured, self-loathing, and in search of identity and peace.
This gradient is key. In one of the more poignant moments of the film, “black nerd” archetype Lionel is asked, “what was harder, being black enough for the black kids, or black enough for the white kids?” Lionel, who is gay, answers, after a beat, “Neither.” But when a white character later tells Lionel that he’s only “technically black,” he hammers home the “black enough” conflict that’s made it all the way to the White House (I get this all the time and it leaves me thinking, “let’s walk into a Wal-Mart with a toy gun and see who’s blacker, brah!”). So, perhaps what “Dear White People” does best is address the construct of sectarian blackness, the effects of which are heightened in a too-white-to-be-true environment such as Winchester. It does this without self-righteous indignation or histrionics.
In an early scene in the dining hall of the film’s “black dorm,” Troy proudly confides that he’s “never encountered any lynch mobs,” perhaps giving the audience hope that “post-racial America” isn’t a throwaway because a black guy just said it. Sam fires back, “They’re still here,” they’ve just “rebranded themselves.” Her confidant, Reggie (Marque Richardson), adds, “as the Republican Party.” Fed up with what he’s hearing from Sam’s table, and unable to remain mum a second more, Kurt (Kyle Gallner) a kid with a Scott Caan cut, chimes in to whitesplain that the hardest thing to be in the American workforce is an educated white male.
As the film builds, Simien walks us through an examination of the post-racial lie Kurt tries to sell us on. And we should call it a lie: a whimsical thing floated over home plate to assuage white America’s discomfort with an undeniably troublesome history and the present it has spawned. From slave narratives to hip-hop, “Dear White People” falls within the tradition of a tectonic urge to show our white counterparts what it’s like to be Us, if only for one day.
A subplot surrounding the battle for Winchester’s black dorm, which has been under threat of being broken up for years, illustrates the “black dorm” as both an absurdity and a means of survival, and more importantly, how prevalent de facto segregation still is in America.
All of this goes to full bore when the much-respected all-white humor magazine Pastiche announces that its annual blowout party will be feature an “unleash your inner Negro” theme. With Halloween fast approaching, we’re sure to see at least one “Compton Cookout” incident in the headlines, only to be forgotten by Thanksgiving, as happened when Johns Hopkins University caught shit for such a party at the Sigma Chi fraternity in 2006.
The film’s third act raises the question of what it means for us as a society when colorblindness really means blindness to the realities of people of color. When “Halloween in the Hood” rolls around, is there a voice among the people who engage in these types of parties, that says “no, stop, cut it out, don’t do this,” and when there is, how much power does that voice actually have to affect change? We know there’s a voice, or we at least want to believe there is, but can it be heard over the plain bad, appropriated nu-trap music that makes a white kid from New Jersey think he has a “hood pass”?
Maybe there’s no sense declaring that this as a film every white American should see (it is addressed specifically to y’all, though). That would be an unrealistic expectation, as is the very idea that a film could alleviate centuries of injury and frustration. The fact that many whites bristled with antagonism just from hearing the title of the film speaks volumes. Anti-blackness, ranging from the oh-so-subtle to homicidal, is still in full effect, from a soccer pitch in Italy to a quiet lane in Ferguson, Missouri. In the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown, John Crawford, and Vonderrick Myer, this matter is no longer up for debate.
“Dear White People” is that New New Sincerity, unofficially stamped with a big “SATIRE” badge for palatability, but existing at the other end of the spectrum from the Black Agony genre and still yet further from the Black Foolishness of Tyler Perry and Associates. Just seeing black characters change and feel feelings and all that is a welcome change. Black audiences deserve more, from both the predominately white studios, large and small, that are tightening their grip on what makes it to theaters and living rooms, and from black actors, writers, producers, and directors beholden to Hollywood’s craven need to paint cinematic blackness into the project basement corner.