“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Instead of a tired old quote from Shakespeare, I bring you a quote from civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois on double consciousness. This term describes how members of the African-American community are judged by their personalities and what everyone else interprets about them based on race. The fact that the term “a spectrum of blackness” makes sense shows the strange state of African-American racial relations that Dear White People brings under fire. Four African-American students at a fictitious elite university — one of whom is biracial — all lie on different points of this spectrum but nobody is content with the positions carved out for them by society and their peers. As a biracial student at an elite, American university, I see this as a landmark film accomplishing for this generation what Sidney Poitier films of the 1960s did for African-American Baby Boomers.
Writer and Director Justin Simien himself confirmed that Dear White People is a film “about the conflict between a person’s identity and their true selves.” At different places on the spectrum are Troy (Brandon Bell), the son of the Dean (Dennis Haysbert) who makes him compensate for being black by making him work twice as hard as everyone else, and Sam White (Tessa Thompson) who gets edged into the role of the impassioned president of the black students’ dormitory. Troy doesn’t mind having to defy stereotypes about black men being lazy and unlawful, but at the same time he wants to have the freedom to smoke weed in the bathroom and write jokes. That’s the problem with stereotypes – they deny the multifaceted nature of a person’s identity by forcing them to conform to one attribute.
Dear White People addresses the subtle forms of racism that occurs today – not the wholly aggressive and overt racism of Poitier’s film In the Heat of the Night, but rather the micro-aggressions committed by Troy’s ignorant white girlfriend Sophie Fletcher (Brittany Curran), for example, who uses derogatory racial language as pet talk. Coco (Teyonah Parris), or Colandrea as she hates to be called, also finds herself at odds with the seemingly confident Sam when she gets placed in the black dorm. Coco tries to distance herself as much as possible from Sam’s frank expression of black identity by getting a long, straight-haired wig and adopting a different dialect. Coco’s character brings up the more uncomfortable reality that society associates everything positive with whiteness, whereas blackness is associated with everything negative.
As a result, Coco tries in earnest to ingratiate herself with the entitled including the white college president’s son, Kurt (Kyle Gallner). As indicated by her vlog’s low viewership in comparison to Sam’s popular and more abrasive radio show, “Dear White People,” social media has a preference for the confrontational.
The most wayward member of the principle cast, however, is Lionel Higgens (Tyler James Williams) who is not only black, but also gay, and thus doubly excluded both by his dorm-mates (led by Kurt) and the residents of the black dormitory. While the other students have more or less staked themselves on certain aspects of their identity, even if ill-fitting, Lionel gets volleyed between different groups in an effort to find people that will accept him.
By confronting the micro-aggressions on campus, the black students manage to uncover these aggressions at a racist costume party. Beginning as Coco’s brainchild, the party quickly snowballs and draws out how each of the main characters actually want to be seen when the chips are down. Such an inflammatory and topical narrative doesn’t sound like a comedy, but the independent production company Code Red Films allows Simien the agency to make this hard-to-classify film. Simien has been compared to Spike Lee, especially regarding Do the Right Thing, which also climaxes in a heightened racial confrontation, but Simien himself rightly disavows the comparison.
A more apt comparison, to me, is to Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan about a group of rich, status-obsessed teens in New York City and the new kid who is just as smart, but not nearly as rich. Everyone in that film is concerned about the performance of their identities as Upper West Side socialites and the new kid finds he can sort of fit in, but not without significant effort. Of course the demographic focus is different but Simien acknowledges the diverse influences that led to Dear White People that might very well draw on Stillman’s use of fast talking, philosophical teens to uncover internal conflict.
The hyper-specificity of Dear White People updates the C story of Troy’s Dad, the Dean, and his rival, the college president. There are only two Boomers represented, one being black and the other white, with fairly cemented views of race at the college. The main characters are still struggling to understand who they are — just like any college student — but the movie seems to suggest that Millennial race relations are anything but cemented.
Sleek text bubbles and pop culture references insert themselves to ground the film in 2014, but the stylized visual style prevents specifics from locating the racial problem just in one city or college. Racial identity is relevant now more than ever, especially with biracial people now being recognized not as some kind of mathematical summation of their parents, but as their own unique identity. While Dear White People doesn’t deign to provide easy answers to the problem of race in America, it addresses the issue with insight and care that entertains in the theater and prompts further consideration once you get home.