No, it’s not Selma! ….In an effort to win back his bi-racial girlfriend, Sam, an undergraduate major in the Media Studies department in which he serves as a teaching assistant, Gabe reminds her of her cultural preferences. She likes the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman more than those of Spike Lee, Taylor Swift more than bebop, and graffiti artist Banksy more than Barack. From his perspective and that of Justin Simien’s Dear White People, one’s identity is more clearly revealed through the content on one’s iPod than through the color of one’s skin.
Simien’s multi-cultural rumination on how identity is often forced upon us has as its most interesting character in Samantha. It’s her campus radio program Dear White People that gives title to the film. Her ambitions on the show are provide for the predominately white Winchester University, an Ivy League-like institution, a glimpse into the real lives and cultural complexities of black life, especially that of the African-Americans who attend Winchester.
No more solid in her youthful convictions than any of the other characters, she experiments with her role as disturber of the peace, voice of authenticity, and whistleblower on injustice. She’s propelled into the campus spotlight when she promotes a repeal of the Randomization of Housing Act which has brought about the racial integration of all residence halls. She believes that black students still need a place to call their own, in much the same way that campus athletes have been given special housing provision. Her outspokenness on the issue results in her election as president of the Armstrong-Parker House, a verdict that displaces the current president, the accommodationist Troy Fairbanks, who happens to be the son of African-American Dean of Students played by Dennis Haysbert, the familiar All-State spokesperson. The father’s insistence that his smart and ambitions son attend donor dinners to demonstrate the progressivism of the institution makes Troy one of the more identity-conflicted students. Yet the father is not a hypocritical lap dog; in private he firmly and somewhat cynically lets his son know just what it is that the white power structure truly thinks of a young man like his son and urges him not to give them satisfaction.
Sam’s female character is counter-pointed by Coco Connors, a beautiful black co-ed who believes that she lives in a post-racial society where her race is neither impediment or asset. She repels any suggestion that she is a race traitor. A frivolous girl very much interest in hair, she auditions to be on a reality TV show that will propel her into fame. She has a brief affair with Troy, the legacy kid, but nothing comes of it, largely because Troy is still on the rebound from his infatuation with Sophia, the daughter of the President of the college, his father’s boss.
The Virgil who leads us through this complicated maze of social relationships and racial identities is Lionel. An awkward youth who has a full-blown Afro, he aspires to write for the Winchester Bugle and dutiful follows the directions of a student-editor who believes that an expose of the divisions within the black student community will bring him a measure of fame that he can parlay into journalism employment. Lionel is an outsider, even among the African-American students, even after he is able to get moved out of a frat-boy dominated Garman residence hall, where the President’s prodigal son Kurt rules the roost, and into the Armstrong-Parker, where he’s suspected of being a spy. Yet like the other characters he’s primed for consciousness-raising and for finding a fixed identity amidst the flux.
His opportunity comes as a result of a scandalous event. Kurt and his racist disciples sponsor a Black Face Halloween party in which the invitees are encouraged to “let out their inner Negro” and to indulge in the many stereotypical habits associated with black life. [At the end of the film, director Simien reminds us of the handful of episodes that have occurred at places like Dartmouth, The University of Florida, Penn State, and Southern Mississippi in the last five years. Simien’s contemplation of the persistence of prejudice on campus must have fueled his imagination. ] The mild-mannered Lionel turns into The Incredible Hulk and Coco delivers a diatribe about how these rich white kids, who care nothing about Harriet F_____ Tubman, nevertheless long to be like African-Americans.
There a few elements of the film that you may have to get around first before you can appreciate Simien’s nuanced view of campus culture. This elite institution and the students of all categories who attend it are not truly representative of the vast majority of non-privileged students who attend far more modest and less prestigious institutions than Winchester. Winchester’s students don’t have to work, are not preoccupied with ill parents or children, and rarely are shown in the classroom. Another stumbling block may be the handsome actors and beautiful actresses who look more like professionals with ten years of experience than early 20 year olds or models on the cover of Ebony. Only Lionel is convincing as a typical undergraduate.
Simien satirical comedy is attuned to the ways in which a sense of self is a product of views projected onto one, both from hostile outsiders and friendly members of the tribe. The pressures for conformity can be just as intense and more deeply felt from these supposed kin. Reggie, a member of the Black Student Union who has an infatuation for Sam, tries to bolster her campus radical role. But Sam is not sure that she can sustain for long “the Malcolm X thing,” certainly not just to please Reggie who she claims is the only marriage-eligible brother in the BSU. Yet the resourceful Sam abandons direct protest tactics and still shakes up the campus using more stealth tactics.
Some viewers may think that the Epilogue to the film – in which the institution’s administration contemplates ways to financially gain from the university’s racial conflicts – trivializes the struggles of students caught in the maze of identity formation. Yet I can’t think of a better product in recent popular culture to stimulate conversation about the realities of race relationships on campus.
In addition to the smart script by Simien, one can admire the craftsmanship of the film. Simien’s eye for the perfect image is as keen as his ear for the different inflections and rhythms of African-American dialect. Shot on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Dear White People is a beautiful film to watch, yet the aesthetic pleasures it provides doesn’t obscure its insightful glimpse on campus issues. I look for more exiting films from this 31 year old director, a filmmaker who according to one of the film’s producers, is as indebted to Spike Jonze (Her, Being John Malkovich) as Spike Lee.