When Dear White People writer/director Justin Simien told the audience at Urban Cusp’s special VIP advance screening of the film that his screenplay was inspired by the film Network (1976), I was not surprised. Network offers a brilliant, satirical look at race, gender, class, media and capitalism amid 1970s counterculture. Many films of that era like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were pondering whether society was changing or merely reproducing itself in a new form. Can we go beyond something we never really dealt with be it race, class, sexuality or gender? Later films like School Daze (1988) and Higher Learning (1995) set on college campuses, asked similar questions. Flash forward to 2014 and we are still puzzled. Simien knows this puzzlement from his own experience as a former film student on a predominantly white college campus in Southern California. In a recent interview on the Tavis Smiley Show, Simien recalls the title “Dear White People” as a college twitter handle made to test jokes and opinions on race and intersecting issues. Out of this process and many versions of a feature script, Simien created four characters for a dramatic comedy: Sam, Lionel, Troy and Coco.
I often wonder what the ‘public intellectual’ may look like in a few years after stalwarts like Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis put down the mic. It seems Simien pondered the same question and emerged with his lead character Sam White (Tessa Thompson). At the NYC screening, Urban Cusp founder/publisher Rahiel Tesfamariam, Simien and Thompson sat down to discuss the film. Thompson confesses “I feel like it’s become, sort of, unpopular to be passionate about what’s wrong around you [and] Sam is someone who cares deeply and can’t help it.” Sam is definitely a throwback with a modern twist. Armed with comedic sarcasm, she is the socially conscious black person on campus like Lawrence Fishburne’s character in School Daze. But the modern twist is Sam is half white and a woman.
As a film student, she documents almost everything she sees on camera. But she also hosts a radio show called “Dear White People” that pointedly criticizes white privilege. As Thompson says, “what I think Sam is most angry about is not racism, but apathy,” a likely outcome of her biracial experience – always invested in two worlds while trying to understand herself. Sam’s radio personality soon yields a false revolutionary persona and more self-reflection. Is there a way to challenge race without a soapbox or the affectation of a ‘60s revolutionary? Sam certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but serves as an agitator forcing both black and white students to discuss race and racism. Eventually she learns to strike an honest tone within herself rather than bow to mass appeal. Part of me wishes she struggled down the road of a modern revolutionary, but that may be too satirical for this film to explore.
Another character, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) presents a quieter, but equally questioning voice in the film. Lionel is a young black man, uncertain of his gay identity and unsure of where he fits in among black or white students. Like Sam, his character works in media as a new voice on the college paper. As Simien says, “Lionel, like all of the characters, is complicated. I see him as a gay, black man, but he is unwilling to because of all of the baggage that comes with either of those categories…” What’s most interesting about Lionel is what his character says about dehumanization of black identity. In a ‘post-racial’ world, black people who do not wish to be trapped in the bowels of racism may choose to be color-blind or somehow disassociate themselves from race. However, doing so makes you invisible. For a great deal of the film, Lionel does seem invisible. But like Sam he learns that confronting ignorance is what restores your personhood despite the ‘baggage’ of race.
Aside from identity politics, confronting racism is at the core of “Dear White People.” However, characters like Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) and Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris) show how non-confrontation has serious drawbacks. Troy is the son of the dean of students, a leader, a jock (well he looks like one) and a solid student. His father, Dean Fairbanks, is a smart, handsome black administrator and alumni of the college. Exclusively referred to by his title of ‘dean,’ Fairbanks represents what happens to black self-determination consumed by ‘the system.’ In fact, Dean Fairbanks and the college’s President Fletcher were once peers. Fairbanks surpassed Fletcher as a student and leader, but Fletcher’s privilege and wealth won him the presidency—a deep source of bitterness for Fairbanks. Troy is defined by this rivalry as Dean Fairbanks maneuvers his son to gain white privilege through President Fletcher’s children. The president’s son, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), embodies every white douchebag you can strain to remember—entitled, dull and overly concerned with the modern plight of white men. And yet Troy fights for position in Kurt’s fraternity, courts his sister Sofia, and regularly ignores bigotry; so long as he stands to gain privilege. Of all the characters Troy is possibly the most lost because he never learns to think for himself.
Coco, unlike Troy is very self-interested. Throughout most of the film Coco vies for an opportunity to star on a campus-based reality TV show. Before long she is willing to throw shade anywhere to get cast. Coco is ashamed of her working class background and sees the show as a way to distance herself from both her race and her class. She desperately wants to be seen as a non-race person with white privilege. Her lack of self-reflection is in stark contrast to Sam, the other principle female character. While Sam struggles to make sense of her vast intellect, bi-racial identity and affinity to the black experience, Coco simply wants a white boyfriend and access to white spaces. At one point she and Troy find solace with each other based on their desperation for white privilege and alienation from it. In that moment it’s clear that as lost as Coco may be, she knows that coveting white privilege makes you complicit in white supremacy. Troy, on the other hand, deluded by class privilege and his father’s obsession, doesn’t draw the same conclusion.
Like Sam White, Dear White People, asks more questions than it can answer. Sam and Lionel emerge with a semblance of self-affirming identity around race and sexuality. Meanwhile, Troy and Coco remain undefined perhaps because they never really stood up for themselves. Simien confesses, “I don’t see myself as an activist, I see myself as storyteller. And the most powerful stories I have seen as a film-goer are stories that don’t necessarily give an answer to the question [otherwise] we wouldn’t need the film.” Therefore, maybe questions from those most affected by racism have always been the way forward—on film, in books, public speaking, etc. However, modern racism is as complex as modern people. Aside from blatant prejudice, we must also confront subtle racism apparent in social interaction like the ongoing obsession with blackface—also explored in the film. With Dear White People and its box office success, Justin Simien reinforces the bankability of smart black films. He follows the recent work of Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, and Ryan Coogler; plus the television triumphs of Shonda Rhimes and Don Cheadle. Without the work of such black media makers, maybe a broad platform for complex and healing discussions of intersectional issues would not exist.