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Friday, October 24, 2014
Dear White People
Side Eyes, Black Faces, White Privilege At Winchester U.
Front left: Tessa Thompson as Sam
White and Marque Richardson as Reggie, in Justin Simien's satire "Dear White
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
When legendary psychiatrist, journalist and Algerian Liberation figure Frantz
Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks" (published in 1952 just nine years before his
death at 36) arrived, his book caused an awakening and a stir. Mr. Fanon
spared no quarter in a ruthless, deeply thought-provoking and incisive book on
blacks, whites, race, identity, colonialism and its effects. It was, and
still is, a must-read book. Mr. Fanon's "Masks" (he also wrote "The
Wretched Of The Earth") could easily be a template for Justin Simien's debut
film "Dear White People", a dead-on, truthful and finely-tuned assessment of the
21st century relationship between and among blacks and whites, and more
pertinently, the role identity and self-identity plays among groups of different
Imbued by 1980s pop cultural homages, Mr. Simien's comedy-drama is a satirical
exploration of race on the fictional near all-white Winchester University
campus. Told in chapters "Dear White People" consists of at least five
stories. They include Lionel (Tyler James Williams), whose sexual identity
on a white, heterosexual campus isolates him; activist leader Sam White (a
Tawana Brawley-Lisa Bonet lookalike), whose daily campus radio show Dear White
People is a clarion call on race and racism at Winchester; and the school dean's
(Dennis Haysbert) upper-crust son Troy (Brandon P. Bell), whose white girlfriend
is the daughter of Winchester's president.
Factions on the Winchester campus are balkanized and begin disintegrating as
understanding and misunderstanding collide, culminating in a Halloween
off-campus house party that is a racist free-for-all of blackface minstrelsy.
It is worth staying for the film's end credits. Throughout, Mr. Simien,
who wrote the film (he's also written a same-titled book) withholds judgment
about his diverse characters, whose manhood, racial identities and ideas of
beauty are often subverted and tested. We all mask ourselves in society to
varying degrees, and the director's characters do the same. When you see
this film you may well see yourself, regardless of who you are.
"Dear White People" skillfully articulates the thoughts, assumptions, unspoken
language and "race-associated" behaviors between blacks and whites. This
devastating film satirizes racial perception and identity in an enlightening,
provocative and intelligent way. Beneath the film's benign surface is a
caustic, biting and brilliant exposé on racist stereotyping, identity politics,
cultural appropriation, whiteness and self-loathing, blackness and self-erasure.
"Dear White People" accurately gauges the pulse of America 2014 and shatters any
foolish myth of a post-racial society. Some of the film is literally
ripped from the headlines. Mr. Simien's film isn't what some white
moviegoers may fear or forecast going in, and yet, it is sad to even utter these
words: the advice here is, fear not.
The film's light, fresh, airy aesthetic is carefully designed. Winchester
is a pristine, squeaky clean institution but its denizens sully its vaunted
status. White and black alike at Winchester have contradictions that are
embraced as much as they are readily exposed. The reveals of characters
emerge in a sensitive, humane way. Mr. Simien tackles racial identity and
masking issues as the springboard for a larger conversation. Watching
"Dear White People" is a funny, appealing, intense and thoroughly enriching
experience. It's an important, timely film for everyone, and it must be
"Dear White People" owes its influences to several directors including Robert
Altman and Spike Lee (whose films "School Daze" and
"Bamboozled" come to mind.)
If this film indicts at all, the target is the long, American cultural
"entertainment" tradition of blackface as reflected in decades of films ("Birth
Of A Nation", "Swing Time", "Holiday Inn", etc), television and radio series
("Amos 'N Andy", etc.), cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and more), celebrities
(Fred Astaire, Lillian Gish, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Julianne
Hough, Claudia Schiffer, Ted Danson.) and more than a few everyday white
Americans. There's a skewering of the disrespect by some whites of
America's only black president, something which would make for a good
commercial for Democrats in two weeks -- though they'd be too afraid to use it.
There's a love-hate repulsion-attraction dynamic in "Dear White People".
Some want to be black while purportedly hating blacks. Others want to be
white while being cool to them. There's a take-down of false equivalency
by the fortified Sam, who critiques racism in one solid scene. Lest some
whites worry about the mere title "Dear White People", it is helpful to point
out in context that forever now a whole English language constantly paints the
term "black" as bad or negative on an everyday basis: "black ball",
"blacklisted", "black market", "black sheep", "black day", "black ice", "black
mark", "black eye".
Mr. Simien's film is a group of academic dialogues, mathematical in their
presentation and content rather than visceral ("Bamboozled"). The film
feels instructional yet it never condescends to its audience. Its final
act carries a psychological punch that penetrates. Arguably the best and
most effective part of "Dear White People" is several scenes related to
corporate profiteering on minstrelsy. This particular subplot is relevant
to the sensationalized Fox News/reality TV era: making millions of dollars by
deliberately saying the most offensive, outrageous things -- uttered by
conservative commentators (Bill O'Reilly, etc.) some of whom don't truly believe
half of what they say on air. There's complicity across the board, and
none of the characters are unscathed.
Ultimately, Mr. Fanon got an obvious jump on today's Internet and 24-hour cable
TV generation, whose instant communication, fear-ravaging, misinformation and
bombast still don't match the calm, explosive and instructive power of what he
wrote more than 60 years ago. Yet Mr. Simien, in a confident and
wonderfully layered feature-directing debut, pushes all the appropriate buttons
on the big screen and in your heart and mind, to greatly successful and riveting
Also with: Teyonah Parris, Marque Richardson, Brittany Curran, Kyle Gallner,
Peter Syvertsen, Kate Gaulke, Brandon Alter, Brian Curtis James, Jemar Michael,
Justin Dobies, Keith Myers, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Naomi Ko.
"Dear White People" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association
for language, sexual content and drug use.
Its running time is one hour and 48 minutes.
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