Diversity and representation have long been a serious issue in the film industry, and 12 Years A Slave winning some Oscars hasn’t exactly changed that. Outside of that prestigious anomaly, people rarely imagine black film to be much more than gangster movies, cookout comedies, and Tyler Perry. Our very own Dominic Griffin will prove otherwise, shedding a light on unsung, underrated, forgotten and new films that show the breadth and versatility of the black voice in film. Named after one of Billy Dee Williams’ affectionate nicknames, this is Dark Gable Presents…
[It’s been a minute since we ran one of these, but this new film is literally the kind of project DGP was created for, so consider this a special edition.]
Two curious things happened before the lights went down and Dear White People came on screen.
1) An older white woman escorting two young white children to some family film introduced them to the police officer working as a security guard seated next to the ticket stand. “You’ll both behave, won’t you? Or this man will have to take you off to jail!” The officer responded with a hearty chuckle. “No, they’ll be good.” I tried very hard to palette swap the image in my mind. A black family joking around with a cop, particularly at a movie theater where the proliferation of “rowdy” black youth precipitates the need for armed security. I could not.
2) A trailer for the new Will Smith movie played. He plays a conman. It looks like an indie crime thriller given a Will Smith-sized budget, complete with an unnecessarily vast scope, crisp car commercial visuals and an appropriated Frank Ocean song placement. There is a beat where Will, pretending to be drunk at a party (because conman) shouts “Where are all the black people?” It should be noted he is the only black actor in the trailer. The world’s biggest black movie star utterly isolated from other performers of color.
This is the world we live in. I’m gonna skip several hundred words of analysis and say straight up that I loved Dear White People and think it’s exactly the sort of film we need a lot more of. This isn’t some kind of elitist thing, either. I’m not about to rant on how we have too many summer blockbusters or complain about Tyler Perry getting checks. It’s not what we have too much of, but what we don’t have enough of.
Dear White People is a college-set comedy before it is anything else. It owes as much to Animal House as it does to School Daze. Justin Simien’s debut film follows four disparate lead characters, all students at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college campus where being black is more than just a box to tick when filling out paperwork. It’s the albatross around your neck. The plot is centered around a number of interlocking conflicts, each orbiting one of the four leads, becoming inexorably intertwined as the narrative builds to a climax set at a controversial party.
There is outrage over the titular radio show hosted by film major Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a credibility building enterprise that puts her at the forefront of a growing movement on campus. Her ex-boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) is the head of Armstrong Parker House, long the home of black Winchester students, who finds his leadership challenged by Sam, which puts him in an odd spot with the school’s Dean (Dennis Haysbert), who also happens to be his father. His white girlfriend, a pawn in a weird, frankly disturbing chess match between her father, the school’s president, and Troy’s father, is friends with Colandrea “Coco” Connors (Teyonah Parris), a Halle Berry looking for her Olivier Martinez, who is trying to get noticed by a reality TV producer, but lacks the controversy Sam so easily courts. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is a black, gay nerd (an outcast among outcasts), assigned to write about black culture at Winchester, a task exacerbated by his inability to fit in anywhere.
On paper, these conflicting storylines might seem like they fit the unfortunate Crash model of throwing a bunch of half plots at a wall and hoping for a white guilt-given Oscar, but thematically, they hold together quite well. Simien really surprised me with this film, as his sure-handed direction and deft characterization keep the film moving at a steady clip. He takes his time introducing the leads as real characters. Oh, he efficiently sets them each up as warring stereotypes of what it means to be black, but those easy label facades melt away rather quickly, leaving the audience to ponder the messier, harder to place realities of the lives they’ve seen on screen. It’s a film about race in Post-Racial America, yes, but first and foremost, it’s about the mutable nature of identity and the struggle to belong. In that, it nestles itself into the canon of college comedies with ease, but what elevates it is the pervasive sense of tragedy that undercuts every laugh.
The film’s marketing material and the Indiegogo campaign that preceded it smartly positioned Dear White People as a comedy, and it is entertaining in that regard. The film’s biggest laughs (the Gremlins joke, 2 Chainz in Fang 9, “You guys have better snacks”) pale in comparison to the emotional gut punches found in the more ruminative moments. Gags about white people touching black hair are easy in a world where we recreationally skewer basic white girls for discovering Timberland boots in 2014, but the intense sting you feel when Simien captures the act occurring, the way the camera lingers on Lionel’s discomfort, that’s a whole different ball game.
While Sam’s “tragic mulatto” storyline feels poised to be the film’s emotional core, it’s Coco’s story arc that steals the show for me. Lionel was who I personally related to the most, and Bell’s performance at Troy is heavily underrated, but Coco felt the most fleshed out, the most lived in. The scene of her alone in her room, comparing her YouTube views to Sam’s and tapping into her own “angry black girl” is so layered and raw. Coco is presented as someone ashamed of her blackness, while Sam is portrayed as being comfortable with and in charge of her racial identity, but as the film progresses, Sam’s inner conflict and the old maxim of “no pigment, no peace” take over her story arc, Coco becomes the more dynamic figure, working over satire-obsessed, racist douchebag Kurt (a wonderfully villainous Kyle Gallner) to MC his humor magazine’s big party and playing for keeps.
I love a good “white people suck” bit as much as the next guy (seriously, white folks, get it together), but the moments in the film that capture the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and homophobia, coupled with the implacable strife of just fitting in with your own people are what makes Dear White People so special. When Coco lays in bed with Troy in a surprisingly tender interlude and says above all else, people will know her name, and Troy asks “which one?” I felt like crying.
The shifting duality of blackness looms large over the proceedings. Every character is perpetually caught in the chasm between who others want them to be and who they really are. Sam’s conflict is handled a little bluntly (a biracial girl trapped in a love triangle with a self righteous black dude and a hipster white guy is a little on the nose) but the minefield golden boy Troy has to hop scotch, trying to please his father, his friends and himself, is constructed with a writerly confidence rare in first time filmmakers.
Visually, the film has a color and tone not unlike the cinematography of Pariah and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints DP Bradford Young, though muted and optimizing light in a more overtly contrasting way. I was particularly taken with the blackface scenes at the climactic house party, the YOLO Minstrels presented with a horror movie aesthetic right out of Spring Breakers, and the casually confrontational second person POV angles that stylistically fall somewhere between the race riot confessionals of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and the diorama theatricality of Wes Anderson. The fourth-wall breaking interludes, while charming, could have been trimmed down and saved for viral marketing and home video release special features, but they give the film such wit and vitality that their presence feels more like a thin layer of cake frosting than unnecessary a la mode scoops of ice cream. (The movie is a cake. The cake is a lie.)
There’s been an above average amount of scrutiny in critical circles about Dear White People, and while I think no film is above criticism, I think it says a lot with the sheer weight being placed on this film’s shoulders. Justin Simien and his talented cast and crew have made a thoroughly enjoyable comedy about the inherent difficulties of finding yourself and fitting in, all the while commenting on the current state of being black in America. Maybe it’s that ambition that causes people to ask for more than they get, but I’m grateful that a new Black voice in film was given the chance to experiment on such a grand stage. I saw this movie at a mainstream theater doors down from a Brad Pitt movie about a tank. To me, that’s progress. It’d be nice to see independent black film getting the kind of tacit encouragement most indie films get, where every bearded white dude in the country can release a 110-minute screed about how girls don’t like him, but a young black man trying to address a lack of diversity on screen will be repeatedly told “there’s no THERE there.” There would be less need to ask the world of Dear White People if it wasn’t the only film of its kind out in release.
While some sources would prefer to interpret the film’s epilogue as some sort of meta mindfuck, I prefer to view it as a backdoor pilot to the future of diversity on screen. The world built up here, a hazy, Instagram-filtered mirror of our own, is a fun one, and it’s definitely something I’d watch on a weekly basis, were it to spin off into TV land. Maybe Shonda is reading this…
Dear White People is out now in limited release in NY/LA/DC/ATL. Opens wider in coming weeks.
If you have any films you would like to see covered in this column, hit us up on Twitter @DeadshirtDotNet and we’ll get them in front of Dom.