Dear White People, United States, 2014; Justin Semien (director and writer); 108 minutes; Homegrown Pictures, starring Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, and Brandon Bell.
Dear White People (2014) was released at a time when culture-themed parties were at their height in controversy on campuses across the United States and news media picked up stories about Mexican “fiestas” with college students dressed up as border patrol and “illegals,” to “Compton Cookout” parties with students dressed up as gangsters, with painted black faces. This satirical drama takes on cultural appropriation, beginning and ending its story with a black-culture-themed party, and looks at how it affects a group of black students navigating a predominantly white Ivy League university. Indeed, the film questions the dynamics of social mobility within the institutional structures of the university. It reveals the myriad ways that black students both limit and further their status at the university by adjusting their black culture behavior, what the main character calls, “modulating their blackness.”
Justin Semien’s debut film tackles race issues through humor. The film mocks the ways that white students adopt black language and culture, makes fun of the ways that whites use black culture to be “cool,” and shows how they fumble in performing it. But it is not only the white stud ents who are the butt of jokes in the film. Semien takes stock black characters and uses them to humorous effect: the overzealous black activist (Sam), the black girl with blue contacts (Coco), the black man dating a white woman (Troy), and even the black gay guy (Lionel) who “listens to Mumford and Sons and watches Robert Altman,”1 arguably too white in his cultural tastes to fit in at Armstrong-Parker, the black student house. The only black character not living in the Armstrong-Parker house, Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is the film’s outcast, and observer. Taking cues from Spike Lee, the writer-director critiques the structural racism that exists in the American university, highlighting the absurdity of everyday life as a “black face in a white place.”
Creatively edited with intertitles much like a silent film, Semien’s drama within a satire is reflexive in its quality, and ambitious in its reach. But the repeated references to stereotypes, humor, and satire as a “weapon of reason,” beg a viewer to question the ability of this satire to indeed critique established norms and institutionalized discrimination. When we laugh at Sam’s group of black friends harassing a lone movie attendant, shouting, “Fuck Tyler Perry! Can we have movies with like, characters, in them, instead of stereotypes wrapped in Christian dogma?”—how much of what they say is compromised by the apparent absurdity of displaced blame? In other words, to what degree does the humor in the film further stereotypes, leaving little room for deliberate and more sophisticated critique?
The film follows Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a film studies major, navigating Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college. In her fashion-forward outfits that incorporate the “Lisa Bonet look” from the Cosby Show and A Different World, Samantha confirms the often-used trope of lighter-skinned blacks overcompensating for their perceived lack of authenticity. White fraternity students are bothered by her radio show, Dear White People, and say, “it’s like Spike Lee and Oprah had some pissed-off baby.” In this way, Semien explains her staunch activism as a way to deal with her “mulatto” background. Along with the political conflicts she faces in the film, she struggles with her inability to reconcile her mixed heritage. For instance, she orders her white lover, “on your knees,” a hat tip to the sex scene in Malcolm X where the black protagonist shows sexual power over the white lover. Her secret affair with her white lover, Gabe, does not help her situation, and her friends’ shocked discovery of the taboo union seems to place part of the blame of the university’s racial conflicts on the black community’s inability to tolerate difference. In effect, the black students limit their social mobility through their self-policing and pressure to preserve community purity.
Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) rejects this move toward purity, and he is, notably, the only character that shows that upward mobility is possible. He is the handsome head of the Armstrong-Parker house, dating the daughter of the white university president, leveraging his power under the guidance of his father, the dean of students. Their relationship is characterized as one marred by high expectations, complicated by the dean’s own experiences of racial discrimination. Believing in the university’s readiness in electing “someone like [Troy],” he grooms his son to be an exceptional leader. However, the son of the dean of students has his own secrets, smoking weed and attempting to join a popular, but dubious, fraternity headed by the university president’s son, Kurt Fletcher. Dean Fairbanks makes it clear that Troy must play his cards right to succeed, which includes not allowing any stereotype to reify white culture expectations: “I have been in academia a long time, I’ve seen a lot of things. And the men who really run this world? You’ve got no idea what they see when they see you. You are not going to be what they think you are. You are not going to give them that satisfaction. Do you hear me?!” Troy’s father checks his son’s inability to control his blackness appropriately. Dean Fairbanks’s fear that Troy will reveal his blackness reflects the precarious social and professional lives that these black students lead on campus.
The most poignant reminder of how race limits mobility in this film comes in the form of a pamphlet that Sam authors, aptly titled Ebony and Ivy: A Survival Guide to Keep From Drowning in a Sea of White. In it Sam provides scenarios of obvious racism and asks her readers how they would react in such situations, maintaining that “there are only a few ways that colored folk can survive at a place like this.” Depending on their response she places them into three categories: 100; oofta; and nose-job. She explains: “oofta is a jazz-age term for Bojangles types who blacked it up for white audiences. An oofta modulates his blackness up or down depending on the crowd and what he wants from them. Nose-jobs smooth their blackness. A nose-job’s worst fear is that their blackness will cause a fuss or undue attention so they use it to self-deprecate. Keeping it 100,” to which her friend interjects, “keeping it black as hell just ’cause!” Because these terms are being taught to us, they seem revelatory, showing us the motivations of some of the characters. But do they? To what degree does the film create a new set of stereotypes, doing very little for the social critique that the film seems so desperate to expose? The film attempts to reveal the harm that stereotypes can bring, but in doing so finds a way to create new stereotypes, reinscribing the problem it seeks to remedy.
Ultimately, however, the film points to controlling media as a possible way of turning that tide, making it possible for black students to survive in the “sea of white faces.” The film ends with the disaster that becomes the blackface party, exposing the weaknesses in our characters, and bringing the satire tothe scale of full drama. But Sam, our media-maker, documents it all, and as a result, creates and screens a more nuanced film, replacing the reactionary one with which she began her semester. Indeed, she shows how modulating one’s blackness, being an “oofta,” allowed for vertical movement in the character of Troy, whereas turning it up “100,” like her activist friends, or bringing it down to “nose-job” level, as was the case for Coco, ended in failure. They all seem like stereotypes, but it is the latter two, the extremes, who get punished in the film, while Troy, the “oofta,” gets rewarded. In case we leave feeling let down by the dramatic ending, Semien has a reality show producer proposition the president and the dean to profit from the blackface disaster. While Dean Fairbanks rejects the offer citing the integrity of the institution, President Fletcher asks for further details on how much money can be made, thus ending the film on a satirical note. While the media-makers like Sam give us some hope, we are reminded that modulating blackness is an ever present necessity for black students who live in a reality-show laden society, that not only perpetuates, but profits from, extreme stereotypes of black culture.
Mumford and Sons is a contemporary British rock band and Robert Altman was an auteur American filmmaker. Lionel’s line here is funny based on the stereotype that only white people listen to Mumford and Sons and watch Robert Altman films.