As I culled my thoughts about the new film Dear White People, the well-known, oft-repeated saying came to mind: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” I’d like to contribute a third sentence to that adage: Satire is harder.
Satire is an art form that demands both precision and reckless abandon in its execution. A good satirist goes for the jugular but keeps the bloodletting to a minimum. Sometimes the storytelling makes you feel uncomfortable, because the discomfort hits squarely a reality, possibly a reality you don’t want to face. From Mark Twain to Network to South Park to The Colbert Report, when satire is done right, it obliterates.
There are merits to Dear White People: the cinematography is beautiful and the actors overall are very good. Dear White People is not a bad film. But it does fail on two levels: one, as a satirical piece; and two, in communicating the overall thesis of the story.
In addition to being the film’s title, “Dear White People” is the name of a radio show hosted by Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a Black woman whose duty it is to call out the white students of fictional Winchester University on pretty much everything. Sam also runs for president of Armstrong-Parker House, the Black dorm on campus, and wins.
Sam is joined at Winchester by Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an introverted, awkward writer who is gay. Coco (Teyonah Parris) is the fashion plate economics major angling for attention via her video blog and from the white editors of the school’s humor mag, Pastiche. It’s a zero-sum game for Coco, with a reality TV show being the prize. There is Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the school’s dean of students: groomed for law school, dating the university president’s (white) daughter, but whose true loves are smoking weed and writing jokes. Troy yearns to have his name on Pastiche’s masthead.
One of the problems with Dear White People is, with the exception of Lionel, none of these characters are particularly interesting, nor do they make any type of definitive statement as far as what it means to be a black face on a mostly white campus. Troy may have Obama-type looks and ambition, but his designs on a law career are in line to make his father happy more than himself. That’s relatable to college students of all races. Lionel’s shyness is compounded by his horrid existence in an all-white house run by the Pastiche guys, who make his life a living hell. But their teasing of Lionel is primarily of a homophobic nature instead of a racist one. More on point are Lionel’s co-staffers at the school magazine: a white woman who can’t help running her hands through Lionel’s big afro, and the white male editor who makes a pass at Lionel but betrays him with white privilege later on. Even when we see Sam—the film’s most prominent character—there are contradictions in her Black power identity activism that, at least in her eyes, erode her credibility. I’ll come back to Sam momentarily…
On the surface, Coco appears to be the most superficial and self-hating. Ironically, she is the most honest about who she is and what she wants out of her time at Winchester. She has no delusions about trying to uplift the race. She wants a million-plus followers on YouTube and to become the next Omarosa (Here’s a link for those too young to remember her.) But as I watched the film I kept thinking: if you’re getting an econ degree from an “Ivy League” university, you don’t need reality TV to make money and get attention. It’s called Wall Street, boo.
I think writer/director Justin Simien couldn’t decide whether he wanted to make a film in the vein of School Daze or Do the Right Thing. So he went for an amalgamation of the two, which sort of makes Dear White People rudderless. I remember laughing heartily only once during the entire film. Wherever the satire was, it wasn’t exaggerated or deranged enough to push the envelope of taste. Even during the “piece de resistance,” the racist Halloween party the Pastiche crew throws near the end of the film, those images aren’t that far off from actual college parties in which white students attended up in blackface, examples of which are shown during the end credits (not to mention what can be found on social media at any given time).
I was left with one question at the end of Dear White People: what was the point? To me (a 40-something Black woman who attended a prestigious, predominately white university), Dear White People was more of a commentary on Millennials than it was on race. My takeaway was that regardless of politics, race, gender or sexual orientation, the majority of young people are self-absorbed, narcissistic assholes. For Sam in particular, the conflicting messages were glaring. It took her (caring, thoughtful and forgiving) white boyfriend/film class TA to call her out for proclaiming Spike Lee as her favorite filmmaker, when it’s really Ingmar Bergman. He’s also not happy about Sam keeping him out of sight from her Black friends. Really?! It’s 2014. Is interracial dating on campus still an issue? Black folks having to prove how “Black” they really are? Back in the day, I was a proud Black student and anti-racism activist wearing INXS t-shirts and listening to Rock Over London on the radio. You couldn’t tell me shit.
Also, Dear White People spends a lot of time criticizing reality TV as “coonery” for a new generation, and continues its critique with a companion book to the film. Yes, reality TV is extremely one-dimensional and problematic in its depictions of Black people, which is why it doesn’t make sense that someone like Coco—a woman with real options—would aspire to that so cravenly. Thing is, reality TV is colorblind when it comes to who it exploits. What intellectual heft do we gain from the Kardashians? How does Honey Boo Boo not reinforce the “trailer park white trash” trope? And lest we forget, Jersey Shore!
I realize that my opinions will not be popular, especially among Black folks who are understandably happy to see a film that takes on provocative subjects and is absent the words “Tyler Perry’s” from its title. Justin Simien will grow as an artist and hopefully add to his filmography. Dear White People is a bold, well-made first film. But as satire, it could have gone harder.
P.S.: Simien should have consulted a map of Chicago before setting up Coco early in the script. Hyde Park is also on the South Side. As a native Chicagoan, it bugs me when folks get obvious stuff wrong about the city.
P.P.S.: While doing some last-minute fact checking, I came across these spoof ads for the “DVRSE” app, and for “Racism Insurance” . Both were created by the Dear White People marketing team (don’t know if Simien was a part of it). Both are funny, satirically spot on and executed brilliantly! Is it horrible for me to say that I think those pieces are better than the feature film they were created to promote?