The Sound of Blackness: A Review of Dear White People
Dir. Justin Simien
Screenplay: Justin Simien
Exec. Prod. :Stephanie Allain, Leonid Lebedev
Starring: Tess Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon P Bell, Teyonah Parris, Dennis Haysbert.
Seeing Dear White People was an experience in a several ways. One, the film itself can be looked at as an experience of racial attitudes in current times; the experience of black students at an ivy league college; and seeing this film in a theater amongst black people who laughed or did not laugh at things I laughed or did not laugh at. Even my friends were weirded out at my gasp and think sink into my chair at the Lorna Simpson “Guarded Conditions” reference. Experience is what this movie calls upon and it is the premise for director Justin Simien’s first feature film: the experience of being young and black in a so-called post racial society. “Racism is over. The only people thinking about racism are probably Mexicans”, says the president of Whitmore University to its black dean of students. The film centers around the randomizing housing on campus and the events that lead to race riot on campus. The randomized housing’s biggest opponent is Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a third year film major, who has a radio show called “Dear White People”. The show expresses not concerns, but annoyances, wise cracking on unintelligent and uninitiated white people and at times, intelligent remarks about racial relations. Among the main characters are Troy (Brandon P Bell), Sam’s ex boyfriend and president of the Armstrong Parker House, who is being groomed for political and financial success. Coco (Teyonah Parris), an aspiring reality show star and assimilationist and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay, black, journalist who no one, black or white, likes. Boom. That’s variety, right? Right—kind of. Except the actual variety in depicting the black experience is stronger in film’s soundtrack.
Anybody knows that music is essential to black expression and representation and most smart directors know how to use sound to demonstrate the importance of what’s on screen. From Kilo Kish to Hopsin, to lesser known acts musically ranging from R&B, pop, indie, jazz, hip hop, and soul (all who are black), almost every form of black music was in this film. It helps to sustain Simien’s colorful Ivy League world, almost as if Wes Andersen directed a few episodes of A Different World or remade Rushmore at Chapman University (where Simien went) But the incredible part of the film is when the yelling ceases and Simien’s characters come to terms with their reality. Sam struggles in her classes, love and home life, too caught up with “Dear White People”. The only acceptance Lionel can find is in his conniving news editor who wants him to report on Sam and Armstrong Parker house because he’s black, and Coco and Troy must deal with importance of their images to blacks, whites, and themselves. One of the best scenes is when after Coco and Troy hook up and are shown in the shadows of an early morning, talking to each other about the other. You can see their lips moving and stop but their thoughts, confessions, and truths, linger in the air, passing over one another in the combing the two characters. In understated way, Coco becomes Troy’s black conscious and neither want to be black.
The trouble with making a film about black experience and the anger, frustration, self-doubt, hate, love, triumph, and growth is that in some way, the project must cater to an audience. So while Dear White People address many—probably way too many issues that end up floating the air, thin as smoke—there seems to be a need to make “black” able to grasp in a way that hardly any transformation happens to the characters, with the exception of Lionel. The problem with assimilation and diversifying for means of unity, is that culture, and in this case black culture, becomes a set of puns, consolidated terms like “Oofta”, know-it-all historical articulation with of black culture that falls flat, and capitalization of culture. It’s like taking a cultural studies class just to say you took one. Just so you can say you know what being black means. Blacks in 2014 become satisfied with answers for a number of things Dear White People questions. One, is why white people imitate blackness if they think so less of us? Another, is what does it mean to be black in America now? Simian’s seems undecided. It’s not exactly move on and it’s not exactly “stay black”. But what is interesting is how this shows in the film’s music and in it’s dark skinned characters, like Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) CoCo, Reggie (Marque Richardson), Sam’s admirer, and even the reality TV producer played by Malcolm Barrett. They all seem to be the antagonists or controlling (Fairbanks to Troy, Reggie to Sam) villainous, lacking compassion or lurking around to start trouble (CoCo and the TV producer) One genre of music never heard in the film is the blues. A white character from Vermont who acts “black” but schools Troy on who T Bone Walker is mentions it. “You gotta know yo history, son.” When this film’s trailer circulated around the time 12 Years a Slave was out, I had read somewhere that Simien said he was tired of seeing black people struggle in films and wanted to see something different. But could a reluctance to deal with a hurtful past come out as favor towards a skin tone closer to those who are depicted to represent moving forward? Living in the past represented by dark blackness–an abyss. And Living in the future as represented by white; or at least being mixed.
In some circles and definitely some generations of blacks do not like the blues because it’s depressing. But if there is any representation of the blues, it is Lionel, in a scene alluding to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, when Lionel smashes the DJ mixer that plays hip hop for the impersonating whites on Halloween the same way Mookie threw a trash can into the window of Sal’s Famous. Both incidents started over the importance of music and its meaning to blacks. Before, Lionel tells Sam, “This is the first time I couldn’t sit back and not do anything.” The Blues represented and vocalized the pain of being black and being human. Something that this film only scratches the surface on.