Thursday, February 12, 2015

Justin Simien | Dear White People

circles of desiring
by Douglas Messerli

Justin Simien (writer and director) Dear White People / 2014

I suspect for many audience members for Justin Simien’s appealing film Dear White People that the script seems highly implausible if not absurd. The numerous characters of this film speak in overly-intellectualized sound-bites, arguing for various viewpoints that few of us, in real life, have time to embrace, let alone the ability to express so coherently. The central figures of this film, moreover, are primarily spokespersons (strange for a movie that so strongly satirizes racial stereotypes and simplistic notions of relationships between Blacks and white) for viewpoints; yet each of them—Sam White (Tessa Thompson) would-be Black cultural leader; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the squeaky-clean, over-achieving Black conciliator, whom Sam perceives as a sell-out to white values; Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), a ghetto-born girl who attempts to use her beauty as a way to buy herself into a television career and white privilege; and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) the shy gay outsider who obviously feels as isolated from his own Black culture as from the brutally abusive white boys in whose fraternity house from which he is literally locked out—after establishing their “type,” all radically shift positions. Sam, it is soon revealed is secretly in love with a white boy who insists she is not a true social leader, but a cross-cultural anarchist; Troy, is a bathroom pot-smoker who seems more interested in currying favor with the racist white boy, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), who runs the popular campus satirical magazine (Troy’s secret desire is to become a stand-up comedian); Coco is ultimately represented as being far more perceptive in her belief than in helping to organize a racist-themed party, she has helped to give white folks their hidden desires to share in the Black experience; and Lionel, suddenly is transformed by events and his own journalist recording of them, into the Black activist, outsider spokesman who Sam pretends to be. In short, in a span of the cinematic convention of a few brief weeks, these figures and others in the film circle each other in various forms of desiring (not desire, which would mean a specific “other,” but in the act of desire, “desiring”) that is so implausible that, although this film pretends to naturalism, turns the work into a kind of cardboard representation of the truths it seems to be trying to honestly reveal to us.
    Yet the actors are so utterly convincing in their young thespian efforts and committed to their chameleon stick-figure representations that it is hard to be offended by the script’s deficiencies. And finally, we must remind ourselves, that the wonderful thing about an undergraduate college or university education is that it is precisely during these years when young and men are allowed to do precisely what the film portrays them as accomplishing: the time to explore ideas as if they were nothing but a change of clothing and, even more importantly, to challenge identities while attempting to define their own. In a world in which decisions in what to major in get confounded with the attempt to lay out plans for an entire future life, radical shifts in reality sometimes occur overnight. If nothing else, Semien’s film reveals to us that Black identity is perhaps even more subject to the daily cultural challenges than white, given the social pressures of suddenly living in a “real-world” environment from which they might previously have been ostracized or, strangely, protected.

     Indeed, one of the first questions these characters are forced to ask of themselves is whether or not they want to remain within a kind of segregated community (presented in the film as an all-Black living facility) as opposed to, as the university president desires, a randomization of location, Blacks being assigned to formerly all-white facilities. For Sam and her friends, the seemingly anti-racist stance simply strips away any attempts the Blacks may have to retain their college identity and allows them respite in an often dizzying new world. Sam, who also performs as an on-line computer commentator in her own “Dear White People” broadcast, sees racism everywhere, from the predilection of certain whites to delve their hands into Black hair and their insistence that they have many Black friends (she argues that they can no longer make that claim with only one friend), to being slighted by waiters who presume Blacks will not tip as much and the secret signs behind the T.V. cartoon series, The Gremlins. And, indeed, given the several incidents Simien satirically points out through the events in the film, it does sometimes appear that everything might be read much in the same way that the paranoid Woody Allen reads anti-Semitic behavior in so many of his daily encounters with the world around him. And then there are the true racist values of many of the university students, exemplified by the blackface party organized, oddly enough, by Coco and Troy in conjunction with the President’s clearly bigoted son—the film’s primary villain—Kurt.

     It is here, however, that a larger encounter between righteousness and racism rears its head in a manner that almost overwhelms the important issues which Simien has already raised. Even if we’ve been able to forgive the “students” for their various skit-like poses, it is hard to buy into the film’s argument that the university president, Kurt’s equally racist father, and the school’s Black dean, Troy’s envious and disillusioned father, attempt to use their children as pawns in their own life-long battles to gain and keep control. One son with school administration ties might have been allowable, but two in one film, along with Kurt’s sister Sophia, who is dating Troy, simply take it over the top.* Yet, like the young people who surround them, they seem to speak in flat-screen projection, playing out roles seemingly assigned to them from youth.      
     Again, the younger generation as represented in this movie seem to save the day, particularly in the confused (not only sexually but in every possible way) Lionel who builds up a dossier, through his covert reporting, that makes Sam’s daily complaints seem like quibbles. Lionel, who has been traveling in the wrong direction on a one way street, is somewhat inexplicably courted by the school’s major newspaper (he has previously been writing from school’s least-read publication) by a young man who sexually toys with him as a way to gain credence with his New York Times advisor. The fact that his seduction takes place at a blackface party, the surreality of which seemingly only Lionel perceives, suddenly forces him to overlay realities in his mind which equates racism with sexual abuse, a tissue of lies by everyone with university and personal ambitions and greed. Lionel and his formerly ineffectual allies are the only ones in this often too-well-crafted tale who utterly lose control, violently confronting the evils they recognize on every level. Even more importantly, however, is that when his destruction of objects is met with personal violence against his very body, he recognizes that everything is linked and reacts accordingly, meeting Kurt’s aggression with a long, seemingly impassioned kiss, suggesting the thin line that exists between hate and love, between violence and desire. It can only result, obviously, given the circumstances of that act, in further violence, but his passive embracement of it gives him the advantage of truth-telling as opposed to the lies all the others have told and maintained in their own minds.

      After being chastised for her lies and manipulation of the truth, Sam realizes the error of her ways, and, revealing her own difficulties of assimilating her mixed-race parentage, accepts the love of her white admirer. Even Coco perceives the shallowness of her materialistic desires. Troy returns to his more assimilating position, attempting to run as student president. In a sense, although all have been chastised, they have gotten something they desired: Sam, filming the melee has finally been able to finish her movie; Coco is chosen as the central actor in the reality-T.V. film about university life, which thanks to the University President’s greed, may even get made; Lionel is now a reluctant hero. But Simian’s work, alas, fails to answer the most important question it raises. As Coco again encounters her one-night lover, Troy, she asks: “I understand why everyone else might want to vote for you. But do you want it?”
      The problem remains that nearly everyone at this pretend “Ivy-league” Winchester University presumes that graduation alone will provide them with what they are seeking, a fact which statistics seem to support: most university teaching jobs, business, and other workplace positions do, evidently, go first to Ivy-league graduates. Yet as their few years at the university should have taught them, that doesn’t mean the identities they have forged will remain the same. Or, if they do become locked into a persona with graduation, think of what unhappy lives, evidenced by the President and Dean of this very institution, they will surely face. Dear Young People: the horror is that when the university door closes behind you, the racism, sexual   bigotry, and chauvinism you have left behind, alas, may begin all over again, perhaps with even more serious consequences. Shifting identities may be the only way to survive.**

*At the University of Wisconsin, I attended classes with the University Provost and later Chancellor, Robben Wright Fleming’s son, Jim, who was, as I remember him, humble and quite likeable. I also have a close friend in Bruce Andrews, whose step-father, Wilson Homer “Bull” Elkins, was President while I attended the University of Maryland. So I can accept the reality, but dismiss the dramatic artifice.
**The movie hints at this, but only with regard to the outside reality of the university world, by intercutting its closing credits with headlines from newspapers announcing just such racially-charged events at several real universities. 

Los Angeles, February 12, 2015

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