Dear White People

November 4, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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How do I write about this film? It would be easy if I had loved it but how does a white man write critically about a film that is so critical of white men, without sounding like (at best) I just didn’t get it or (at worst) I’m a disingenuous racist? Let’s see if I’m up to the task. “Dear White People” explores the race relations at a fictional Ivy League school. Told from the perspective of several of the students, it covers the events leading up to a black-face frat party put on by a group of White students. Along the way there is biting humor, seething anger and oodles of social commentary. Much of the commentary comes from a college radio show called “Dear White People,” run by a student, played by Tessa Thompson (TV shows “Veronica Mars,” “666 Park Avenue,” and the upcoming movie “Selma”). Thompson’s lines are by far the funniest and often the most insightful. She delivers them with the right level of cynicism, bored disdain and bite, while also capturing an underlying vulnerable hopefulness in her character. She’s clearly a strong actress but she, and the rest of the cast, has little to work with here. Director/writer Justin Simien (this is his first full length film) clearly wants to be provocative and statements like saying that White people who use the term “African American” are being racist certainly do the trick. However, for all of his cutting remarks the injuries end up only being skin deep. This is because none of the characters feel real. Now, admittedly, it has been a while since I went to college and, perhaps things have changed significantly, but I have never met a group of White students so uniformly and blatantly racist. Even the best of the White students behave in ways that are appalling and, frankly, seem to be more for laughs than insight. And I think this is where the real problem of this film lies. Simien was trying so hard to make audiences laugh while also creating outrage that he ended up doing neither thing effectively. As the closing credits showed, White college students all over the country have put on blatantly racist parties. This fact is worthy of a movie but one a good deal more serious than this one. By the time we actually saw the party, the audience was so numbed by stereotypes that it was too easy to not take those images seriously; it looked like so many cartoon villains behaving in cartoon ways. That’s a shame. I would have much rather seen, and been more disturbed by, the story of some likeable, “just-like-my-kids,” students who then can somehow justify horrifying racism.  That’s the real truth this film negates. It implies that ugliness comes from mustache twirling desperadoes and not from you and me. In a film like this, letting the audience of the hook that way feels irresponsible. What does it say about the state of race in this country that basically decent kids can be so casually hurtful and then dismissive of it afterwards? The film has some pointed barbs for the Black students as well, raises issues such as interracial dating, equating success and “whiteness,”  homophobia and gender images within the Black Community. It also raises a fascinating question about whether or not young white adoration/adoption of Black culture is it’s own form of racism. It’s a very evocative idea and well worth exploring. There were many good, interesting, evocative ideas touched on in this film and that’s the problem; they were only touched on, laughed about, and ultimately dismissed.

ADDENDUM: Over the past week, I have been thinking a lot about this film or, more specifically, about the issue of white college students putting on racially-themed parties and wondering: Why? What motivates these kids? Just calling it racism seems like too simply an answer to me. I want to dig deeper.  I began wondering if young White students are acting out some “fetishized” version of Black people in some way. Perhaps, these behaviors are also a form of transvestic fetishism. In that situation, straight (and almost always married) men put on women’s clothing for a short period of time (usually a few hours) as a way of relieving stress. These men, who tend to be older and more traditional, view women as having an easier, stress-free life. They are often in high stress jobs and feel a lot of general dissatisfaction with the amount of responsibility they believe they have. So, periodically, they “become” a woman for a few hours. They dress up, sip tea (often with their very patient wives) and can escape from the stress of being a man (as they see it). All of this is to suggest that maybe (just maybe) the same thing is happening with these students. In other words, perhaps some White students envy Black Americans for having what they believe to be a more carefree life. This is ridiculous, of course, but perhaps compelling to some. Maybe some young White men believe they are under constant pressure to keep their emotions in check, be civil and respectful in a way they believe that Black men do not have to be. Thus, putting on black-face allows them to act out pent up aggression and sexism, acting as a safety value for their perceived stress. In this theory, these types of acting-out behaviors represent a deep-seated (and likely unconscious) envy and resentment toward marginalized groups who they believe are somehow “let off the hook” from having to follow society’s rules. I have no idea how valid this is. These are just my pop-psychology musing but I thought I would share them. I’d love comments from anyone who wants to join the discussion.

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