Last week, Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly got into a heated debate about whether or not white privilege exists. O’Reilly’s stance was that it doesn’t. “Maybe you haven’t figured out that there is no more slavery, no more Jim Crow, and the most powerful man in the world is a black American…” said O’Reilly. He went on to further explain his point, saying, “America is now a place where if you work hard, get educated and are an honest person, you can succeed.”
But most of us who choose to stare society straight in the eye know that to be a glorified view of the actual truth. In reality, we’re constantly surrounded by racism that’s hiding not-so-subtly under the surface. So there are no more lynch mobs or slavery, that’s true. But what we do have in spades are “microaggressions”: Faux pas grounded in negative stereotypes that (often unintentionally) demean or alienate people of color.
In fact, that’s a subject that’s deeply explored in first-time director Justin Simien’s Sundance-hit “Dear White People.” The film follows four different African-American students at a mostly-white Ivy League college called Winchester University: Samantha White (the fantastic Tessa Thompson), a mixed-race host of a radio show called Dear White People, where she calls white people out on their microaggressions; Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), a dark-skinned girl who’s only interested in fitting in with the white crowd; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), a universally well-liked student who’s trying to live up to his father’s expectations; and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay journalist who just can’t seem to find where he fits in.
These may sound like your standard stock characters, but in Simien’s hands, they’re multidimensional characters whose struggles and emotions feel all too real. And it doesn’t hurt that Simien has written some of the years’ best dialogue just for them. Endlessly witty, Simien has crafted a biting satire that’ll make you laugh at things that actually aren’t very funny at all.
Despite the somewhat combative vibe given off by the film’s title, “Dear White People” isn’t aiming to make white people out to be insensitive, racist villains. It aims to examine the divide that truly exists in the Obama age, where there’s no word more shameful to have yourself associated with than “racist.” It’s about social and racial identity – a theme that has the most impact whenever the story finds its way back to Lionel. It’s in his character that Simien shows that he’s not just pointing fingers at the white community. Lionel’s status as a gay African-American is a tricky one: he finds himself alienated by the white students because of the color of his skin, but also shunned by the black students because of his sexual orientation. Moreover, he listens to Mumford and Sons and watches Robert Altman movies, making him what another student calls, “only technical black”; he’s too black for the white crowd, and too white to fit in with the black student union.
The film reaches its climax when a white fraternity throws an African-American-themed party, where the attendees happily show off costumes that consist of blackface, Lil’ Kim wigs and fake guns. It’s not about whether or not the students actively hate black people; the moment the members of the black student body step into the party, they’re seeing their culture reflected through the eyes of white people. And it’s as classless and disrespectful as you can imagine. Even worse, the end credits are accompanied by photos from actual college parties like the one we witness in the film. So what does this say about our current state of racial relations, when we live in a country where so many people – like Bill O’Reilly – are eager to insist that racism is completely a thing of the past? Ignorance is bliss.
“Dear White People” makes a few slight missteps that are worthy of address. The narrative structure does get a little messy at times (it would have benefited from a little less frequent intercutting between the characters), and it’s certainly much heavier on dialogue and ideas than an actual plot. But it’s this very moment, when all the characters meet in the inevitable showdown, that makes up for the film’s shortcomings. The end product can even be called graceful, due in no small part to Simien’s distinct style and absolute perfect use of classical music.
In one of the film’s best scenes, a group of students stand outside of a movie theater box office, complaining about the state of black cinema. “How come the only black movies Hollywood wants to make are ones with black mammies in fat suits?” one character asks. ‘Can we get a movie with, you know, characters in ’em instead of stereotypes wrapped up in Christian dogma?’ Samantha adds.
“Dear White People” is the overdue antithesis to all of the above. It’s sharp, provocative, and never needs to sacrifice entertainment value to make its hard-hitting points.
“Dear White People” is now in theaters. For showtimes in Miami Beach, click here