On my first day of college at NYU, I dragged my three bags up eight flights of steps to get to my assigned room. Many years later now I don’t recall what type of door tags the Resident Hall Advisor had made for the first semester, but I do remember how the names on the door, how they looked and how they made me feel. My dorm door read, “Sarah, Susan, Sally and Aramide”. So began my freshman year of college; a strange and often troubling prologue to my college experience as a whole.” Justin Simien’s Dear White People felt very much like relieving that experience.
I went into the show with extremely high expectations. The film has been garnering serious buzz for well over a year. It centers around the fictional Ivy League Winchester University in or around Chicago. Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), the film’s protagonist is a mixed Black nationalist airs a campus radio show entitled “Dear White People”. The show exposes the hypocrisies and racial injustices that are ingrained within the university, as well as the micro-aggressions that students of color experience on a daily basis along with with the spaces of privilege and power that the white students on the campus continuously occupy.
Though often humorous scoldings like “Dear White people, please stop dancing”, Sam also points out completely inappropriate behavior, like the use of the word Nigga by white people even when “hidden” under the guise of reciting rap lyrics. Needless to say, Sam’s ruffling quite few feathers.Winchester has also enacted a random lottery selection that leaves students with little choice of where they might dorm. An issue that is seemingly only affecting the historically Black dorm on campus.
There’s also tensions between the President of the University’s son Kurt (Kyle Gallner) constantly antagonizes standing proudly on his pedestal of privilege. Not the only douche bag in the film, Kurt is constantly at war with Troy (Brandon Bell), the head of the Black dorm and the son of the Dean of Students (played by Dennis Haysbert). Troy also just happens to be Troy’s ex, confused about his own identity and place at Winchester, he’s constantly seeking his father’s approval while trying to accepted by Kurt and his crew.
Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a black gay student who can’t seem to find his footing anywhere, is the object of both Kurt’s ridicule and Troy’s disdain. (Tyler is brilliant by the way, just as he was in Everybody Hates Chris). Though he’s being constantly shoved into stereotypically labeled boxes by his classmates, Lionel might just discover his own identity in the end.
I’ll admit the film started off slow for me, the narrative was like a weaving basket and I struggled first to understand how all the threads aligned. Perhaps it was because my expectations were so high. I found my mind racing, desperately trying to figure out where the story was going before it picked up speed. When it did however, it was not at all what I expected. In fact it was much much more.
Instead of the collective story of the token black kids that I and I’m sure many of you know. Simien chose to focus on the complexities of Blackness. What if you don’t really have a place in the Black Student Union? Perhaps you find the idea of wearing your hair in it’s natural state abhorrent? Maybe the person you love is someone society has tried to shame you into hiding? All of these ideas are assessed in the film. Teyonah Parrish who plays “Coco”, the upwardly mobile bougie Black girl whose looking for a Robin to her Paula is freaking brilliant. (Much more range then she is afforded on either Mad Men or Survivor’s Remorse.) And yes, it’s also made clear that it’s NEVER OK to just reach into ANYONE’s head and rub your Hands through it. Nor is it EVER acceptable to wear Blackface. (Dear White people, STOP WEARING BLACKFACE!)
The film isn’t perfect, it’s not as alternatively sound as I would have hoped and there are some questions left unanswered in the end that I felt as viewers we are owed an explanation.It did however make me think, as it will many of you. It brought me back to that day freshman year of college when my roommate looked at me with disgust and pity when she found a strand of my hair by the refrigerator. (Early on I gave her the “Black people don’t wash their hair everyday talk.”) Apparently she thought that meant I was just filthy. It also reminded me of the awkward encounters that I had with the other black kids that made up the entirety of NYU 5% black student body at the time. (Like the incident of the girl who acted a fool at a restaurant and didn’t tip, or the guy at that frat party who tried to “hook up” with me because I was the only other black person there, or the times when I went to Black history month club and the older students were rude and snooty and wouldn’t speak to the freshman.)
The film also reminded me of the time last year when I was leaving my thesis class for my graduate programs (where I was the only black person) at my Ivy League slams matter and I said “that got on my black nerve.” And, one of my classmates turned to me and said, “Why does it have to be a “Black” nerve?” 0_O
Dear White People, lets it be known loud and clear that despite the fact that we live in Obama’s America, we are not and no where near post-racial. Its unapologetic and brass in your face. It screams loudly and clearly that race and racism are still issues so lets talk about them. Go see Dear White People, and tell me what you think.
xoxoxo Chocolate Girl in the City xoxoxoxoxo