Movie Review: Dear White People (2014)
Let’s look at two lines spoken by two different characters in the movie.
The first comes from “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Paris, Dawn Chambers of “Mad Men”), a pretty black girl who, in the Ivy League setting of Winchester University, wears blue contact lenses, a straight-haired wig, and wants a “Gosling” not a “Denzel.” She’s being interviewed for a possible role on a reality TV series, which she wants desperately, and she’s putting on airs. She says she’s from Hyde Park in Chicago, and when the (black) producer asks where exactly, she says 78th Street. That’s South Side, he says. He tries to get her to own up but she backs away. “Hey, there is nothing ’hood about me,” she says. He winds up rejecting her for the show. (Showing what an idiot he is: she would be perfect.)
The second line is spoken by one of the doofus white fratboys, who wind up, in the movie’s final act, putting on a hip-hop party where white students dress in blackface. This is before that. He’s simply talking to, I believe, Coco, and dropping hip-hop slang and gangsta talk to impress her. After she dryly asks him where he’s from—Ohio?—he drops the pose for a moment. “I’m actually from Vermont,” he says. Then, attempting to recover some cachet, “but the west side.”
That line actually made me laugh. Coco’s didn’t but his did. Why is that? They’re basically involved in the same act—denying where they’re from, trying to be what they’re not—but hers is tragedy and his is farce. Because she’s female and he’s male? Because she’s a fully realized character and he isn’t? Because girls pretending they come from wealth is the stuff of melodrama while guys pretending they’re tougher than they are is the stuff of Bob Hope?
Either way, it makes you wonder: In a country where the races want to be each other this much, shouldn’t we get along more?
Or is that why we don’t get along more?
I wish “Dear White People” were better. It feels young. It’s provocative, like the title, but not particularly informative. Also derivative. See “School Daze.” Which was released, remember, 30 years ago.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson) a “Lisa Bonet-looking wannabe” according to Coco, is both film student and campus provocateur. She hosts a campus radio show, “Dear White People,” in which she dispenses advice to her title characters:
- You now need two black friends to not be racist.
- Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.
- Quit touching our hair.
(I’ve heard this last complaint forever, but who does that exactly? In the movie, it’s just white girls, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in reality it’s just white girls. Or some white girls. Whoever’s doing it, stop it already.)
Sam, like everyone, has secrets. Her father’s white, she’s dating a white guy (her film studies T.A.), and she likes Taylor Swift. (“I was so careful,” she whispers under her breath when confronted—a good bit.) And is her heart really into the neo-black power shtick? How much is her and how much is Rovian right-hand man Reggie (Marque Richardson)?
Reggie, after all, is the one who pushes her to run for president of the black campus fraternity against the son of the dean, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), a studly, going-along-to-get-along dude who just wants to smoke pot now and again and write for the campus satirical magazine—even though he doesn’t have an ounce of humor in him.
Other characters include the rich white guy, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of the university president, whose sister is dating Lionel, and who articulates the Fox News point of view: that the toughest thing to be in the American workplace these days is an educated white guy. Yawn.
The most interesting character, particularly early on, is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, Chris of “Everybody Hates Chris”), the dude in the poster, who doesn’t have a group; he doesn’t even have a place to live. Beneath his massive ‘fro, he’s reserved, gay, apolitical. One imagines he’s like writer-director Justin Simien, who’s reserved, gay, but less apolitical. But then the journey Lionel takes is from apolitics to politics. He gets politics even as Sam loses hers. (Or, per Scorsese, she changes from iconoclast to smuggler.) It’s a little like Mookie in “Do the Right Thing,” except instead of tossing a garbage can through a window, he pulls down speakers at the black-face fraternity party.
Do we do the Spike Lee thing yet? Do we compare and contrast with “School Daze”? I actually think Simien’s debut effort is a better movie, with a better story and a better ending, but “School Daze” was like nothing else before it. It was a dirty bomb that exploded in a portion of the culture. It talked about things the culture didn’t talk about—the whole light skin/black skin, good hair/bad hair dynamic as revealed on a historically black Southern college during the days of Reagan and Apartheid protests.
Many of the characters in “Dear White People” would actually fit pretty easily on the Mission College campus. Sam and Reggie are some combination of Larry Fisburne’s Dap, Coco is one of the wannabes, Kurt (now white) is Dean Big Brother Almighty. They’re just less cartoonish here. At the same time, Lee includes a great scene that resonates beyond the decades: the confrontation between Dap and the locals in the parking lot of a fast-food joint. I’m white and northern, not black and southern, but I identified. Half my high school/college days seemed to involve unnecessary confrontations with jerks in parking lots.
Nothing like that in “Dear White People.” Do we even get off campus? Is the movie theater off campus? The black kids protest that the only black movies available are Tyler Perry movies. The vignette is a total Spike Lee ripoff—outrage played to comic effect—but all I could think was: Why are you telling this to the ticketseller? Poor, minimum-wage-earning schmuck.
But Simien does provide a wake-up call. Lee gave us literal ones that didn’t work, while Simien gives us a metaphoric one that does.
During the black-face, hip-hop party, which he filmed in nightmarish slow-mo, I kept thinking, “Right, didn’t this happen somewhere? Didn’t some white fraternity do this?” And during the end credits, we get the reveal via newspaper headlines: Dartmouth. Then Simien reveals another. And another. And another. He gives us half a dozen headlines from half a dozen universities on this very phenomenon. Revealing that if racism isn’t alive on college campuses, at least massive historical ignorance is.
The best part of the movie for me? The humor, as in the scene (1:50 in the trailer) where Sam argues with her secret white boyfriend, Gabe (Justin Dobies), even as Reggie and company are knocking on the door:
Gabe: I’m sick of your tragic mulatto bullshit.
Sam: You can’t say mulatto.
Gabe (angry): Mulatto! Mulatto! Mulatto!
Reggie (outside): Did somebody say mulatto?
I’d like to see more of this. Humor, after all, is often saying the thing what many are thinking but few are saying. It’s the ultimate smuggler.