A Study in Black and White: Justin Simien's Dear White People Hammers Home the Message That Everyone Is Always More Complicated Than the Color of Their Skin

U.S. Catholic, February 2015 | Go to article overview

A Study in Black and White: Justin Simien's Dear White People Hammers Home the Message That Everyone Is Always More Complicated Than the Color of Their Skin


Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August, race has been back on the American screen, at least the small one. Events in Ferguson have provided TV news with images that seem to recapitulate the past half-century of racial struggle--from police violence to nonviolent sit-ins to outraged burning and looting.

But at the same time, we all know that Ferguson is not Birmingham 1963 or Detroit 1967 or even Los Angeles 1992. The world has changed. When trouble erupted last summer, our black president sent his black attorney general to investigate. On the other hand, where it really counts the most, very little has changed. Those African American men who stay out of jail and survive the hazards of the streets will still be unemployed at a rate double that of their white counterparts.

Dear White People (Lionsgate, 2014), the first feature from writer-director Justin Simien, is set in the uncomfortable gap between the America of Eric Elolder and the America of Michael Brown.

The film's main characters are young black men and women who have benefited enormously from the changes of the past half-century but still find themselves branded by race.

They are all students at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University. At least one, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), is a second-generation Ivy Leaguer, but another, Colandrea Conners (Teyonah Parris), is fresh from the South Side of Chicago. One is a dark-skinned young man with an enormous afro (Lionel Higgins, played by Tyler James Williams) who also happens to be gay. Another, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), is an outspoken black militant, but one with a white father and Taylor Swiff on her iPod.

The movie's title is also the name of White's campus radio show, which purports to tell white students what they need to hear from black classmates. She punctuates the movie with a Greek chorus of pithy one-liners: "Dear white people, dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism." "Dear white people, the number of black friends required to not seem racist has officially been raised to two." "Dear white people, please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo?"

Writing like that led the New York Times film critic to call the film "smart and fearless." And I had to agree, especially after the scene in which Samantha and her teaching assistant boyfriend argue postmodern critical theory while making love.

However, Dear White People is much stronger on witty repartee and intellectual combat than it is on plot. The most important conflicts are within the characters who struggle being a "black face in a white place." But a more dramatic power struggle does evolve between Samantha and the all-white student humor magazine, which happens to be edited by the school president's son. This gives rise to the climactic events surrounding the magazine's ghetto-themed blackface Halloween party. …

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