Tyler James Williams | Photo by Ashley Nguyen
“Confusion!” rapper Flavor Flav shouted on Public Enemy’s great album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black and nothing in American race relations has changed since then. Confusion is why the lead character of the new racial comedy Dear White People is a black gay college student, yet it’s only until the film’s concluding scenes that his gay identity matters.
Skinny, bespectacled Lionel (Tyler James Williams) begins the film as the victim of a phone prank ridiculing his sexual proclivities, but his blasé attitude indicates that his real passion is pledging for a campus fraternity. Dear White People is motivated by the desire for popular acceptance in its many forms: Lionel downplays his sexual orientation for social approval; Sam (Tessa Thompson) poses as the campus’ radically politicized female activist; Coco (Teyonah Parris) displays herself as a black Barbie wannabe; Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the goal-fixated dean’s son.
So, given these four black youths as protagonists, why is Justin Simien’s debut feature titled Dear White People?
Perhaps because Simien himself cannot get beyond the practicality of appealing to film culture’s predominantly white power-holders. (His shrewdness paid off with a prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.) Never mind that these gatekeepers already heaped self-congratulatory awards on the dubious Precious and 12 Years a Slave, Simien’s humorous sensibility must deal with the fact that the racial and sexual attitudes of American film culture are controlled by a social class that demands its own recognition first.
Lionel is the focus of the film’s most interesting scenes that include his ostracism by homophobic classmates and his fetishization by the white editor of his college paper. But these detailed slights are stuffed-in among the film’s other crises of personal identity. It isn’t until Simien sorts out the sexual issues from the racial issues, the gender issues from the class issues, that the film stops laughing at itself and can be taken seriously.
Before that, there’s charming frisson in Lionel and Sam’s interracial hook-ups and disturbing frankness in Coco and Troy’s distressed efforts towards social mobility. Each of these students-of-life seek to fulfill the social roles expected of them. Still, confusion reigns in Simien’s parody of Obama-era racial cant and social bromides. Sam’s rants on her campus radio show, titled “Dear White People,” address race “through a postmodern lens.” She gets the lingo right, but the force of her bluster makes it unclear if she is Simien’s sponsored character. When Sam becomes a black fraternity’s head of house, she panders to those race hustlers who justify reverse racism when she throws white students out of the chicken-and-waffles black dining hall.
Turns out it’s passive, late-to-politics Lionel—the black gay dude—who represents Simien’s concerns. His evolution counters the old gay-until-graduation truism. Lionel sports a blooming Afro as significant as Dante DeBlasio’s. He’s awakened politically after his sex and writing life disappoint and once he discovers a Halloween party where the white students dress in blackface (based on those at Dartmouth, Penn State, and other campuses). This has a weak comic payoff (except for Coco’s counterintuitive costume choice), yet it brings out the desperation in Simien’s farce structure. Campus turmoil drives Simien’s suffering main characters a bit mad. Simien doesn’t critique them; his imperfect film shares the ideological confusion that has confounded all comedians during the Obama era—from the partisan satirists on Saturday Night Live to those Obama effigies Key & Peele on Comedy Central.
Working post-Dave Chappelle, Simien presupposes a general racial awareness. Sam states Simien’s p.o.v. when she says “Satire is the weapon of reason” and “The job of the counterculture is to attack the mainstream.” Now that identity humor has become mainstream fodder, with subtle insistence on everyone’s assigned roles, Dear White People continues the assumption that everybody understands what gays, blacks, and women want. (A reality-TV subplot goes nowhere except offering the misinformation that “’re-enactment’ is a documentary term.”)
Simien observes a lost generation of gays, blacks and women who forget what their protesting forbears fought for. (To wit: Sam frantically proclaims: “It wasn’t speeches that turned the tide for civil rights, it was the anarchists that got the press”—a terrible reduction of history.) These “post-racial” youth are shocked to discover there really is no such thing. This sad truth gives poignance to Dear White People narrative mess.
Obama-era thinking messes with Simien’s conceit. It causes him to depict college life’s gentrifying experience in a pollster's demographic terms—as quadrants. His four main characters obviously represent aspects of himself; even his sexual side has two sides (meek Lionel and mouthy Sam) as does his racial side (nerdy Troy and fashionista Coco). The campus blackface crisis forces his (their) coming to terms with college and society’s expectations. Yes, it’s complicated and what gay, black, or modern American cannot relate to that?
Spike Lee's 1988 film, 'School Daze'
Dear White People sometimes recalls Spike Lee’s own campus comedy School Daze (1988), which also focused on the dynamics of frat and sorority houses—social sites where the young upwardly mobile generations discover their place in America’s on-going racial conundrum. School Daze, with its audacious musical numbers derived from authentic Step competitions, “Da Butt’s” go-go dancing and the Busby Berkeley parody “Straight and Nappy,” has a timely cultural essence, yet School Daze baffled more people than it enlightened. (A memorable In Living Color skit admitted the film’s unpopularity even among shoppers at Lee’s Spike’s Joint souvenir emporium. School Daze might be ready for re-evaluation.)
Simien’s satire isn’t as sharp as Joseph Kahn’s audacious Detention and it lacks the radicalism of Brian De Palma’s 1970 classic Hi, Mom! with its unforgettable “Be Black Baby” mockery of white liberal fantasies. In the Obama era, comics have lost the ability to mock their own prejudices. Simien’s efforts cost him the depth of his four main characters—gay Lionel in particular. But I must admit: By movie’s end, Lionel’s confusion is more affecting than at the beginning.
Somewhere in a cinematic paradise, the frat boys and sorority sisters of Dear White People would party with the gay alumni of Patrik-Ian Polk’s The Skinny and American cinema—black gay American cinema in particular—will triumph over confusion. Sequel anyone?