As a white male, I know that I have privilege in this country that others don’t, and I know that I don’t carry over my shoulder a legacy of oppression and a stigma of stereotype, at least not an overtly harmful one. I don’t walk into a place of business and get racially profiled (at least not by the majority) and my skin color or gender will not hinder me from the things in life that I want to attain or achieve. I also know that I am judged, due to the color of my skin, by those of a darker complexion, and I do know that, while racism still exists (I mean, you cannot deny that), prejudice also exists, and that knows no color. I know that not all white people are evil, and I know that not all black people are ‘part of the solution’. I know that white man does not save the black man (stop white washing history, Hollywood), and I know that not all white people are entirely ignorant.
Not everything is black and white.
So, despite the reviews and obvious critical attention, I was weary of ‘Dear White People’. The reason for this was that I was not in the mood to sit through nearly two hours of being told that I was ‘the problem’.
Much like Gillian Robespierre’s smart look at another controversial subject, abortion (and yes, I’m talking about ‘Obvious Child’), I thank the heavens that Justin Simien’s eventual observations are intelligent and balanced. The exploration of race relations is so clever and smart, that despite some glaring flaws, this biting satire actually says something truly profound about a subject that we see continually regurgitated on screen.
Despite developing many of the same clichés that it feels intent on dispelling (let’s be honest here, some of the development of character feels a tad over saturated with ‘subtext’), ‘Dear White People’ has such an honest soul, and the fact that it truly dissects the fascination with black culture and the way it can be distorted and even manipulated by both sides of the race coin is remarkably solid and poignant. By exploring the feelings and intentions of four black students, Simien’s satire develops a balance that would not have been there without the whole being represented, and so maybe it is within those overt stereotypes that we see the complete picture, the more balanced and realistic portrait.
One thing to consider here is that this is not really an exploration of race relations as a whole but more an exploration of the way in which African American youths deal with those relations. White characters are never fully developed here, but are there to serve as plot points and narrative markers, and while I would normally balk at this as being an unfair representation of our side of the coin, I have to look at things within context, and the context of ‘Dear White People’ never feels offensive in its presentation. Yes, Kurt Fletcher and his band of miscreant frat boys are presented as the worst possible type of ‘white privilege’, but Gabe is pretty much the best possible type, and so with the two extremes represented, I feel like Simien made his point.
This story isn’t about us.
No, this story is about a young man who feels as though he doesn’t fit in anywhere, being too black for the white guys and too gay for the black guys. This story is about a young woman who feels that the color of her skin is a reason to be ashamed, constantly trying to play down her roots and her attraction to men of color. This story is about a young man so confused by his father’s ambitions and idea of black ascension that he loses his own identity within the pursuit of achievement. This story is about a young woman so confused by her family and the tone of her skin that she pushes herself into a movement that she doesn’t fully understand.
And within that mixture of faces and intentions, we see a side of race relations that isn’t often explored this sharply.
The question of responsibility is brought up a lot here, and the fact that it is up to those in certain positions to be attentive, observant and assertive, and it places the spotlight on these four young people as beacons of the reason this responsibility is so important. It also asks all of these people to be honest with themselves, which is a very important point. All four of these students are almost afraid to be honest, afraid to look in the mirror and be themselves because they feel as though there is something expected of them because of their skin color. The final moments, that offensive and utterly disgusting Halloween party, is a moment of deep reflection, not really on the white students involved (who were idiots to begin with), but on the black students who allowed it to go that far.
And for what?
Simien’s subplot of a reality show feels a little too ‘on the nose’, and honestly wasn’t necessary, but it does make a point with regards to perception and what we as a unified country have done to promote a misrepresentation of race as a whole.
And isn’t that really the truth. We help create and cement these stereotypes into our culture and our everyday life by promoting them as the only depictions of race in this country, and that is appalling and horribly misguided.
For me, despite the flaws, ‘Dear White People’ is an excellent film that looks at a splintered viewpoint from daring eyes and asks questions and presents answers that maybe we never considered before, or weren’t willing to admit. In many ways, I find Simien’s work here even more compelling and poignant that the racial dissections of Spike Lee, maybe because Simien’s work doesn’t feel so one sided and bias but actually feels like the work of a man who is actually intent on identifying and correcting a problem, but stirring the pot to see who gets angry first.
I give this a strong B+, verging on an A-. Simien's intentions, while not always manifest in the most effective way, are bold and concrete and make a statement that is profound and needed.