The most racially charged movie in 25 years is set to be theatrically released around the time when the grand jury in Ferguson is expected to announce its findings regarding the shooting of a Black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white policeman. Scheduled to open October 17, Dear White People culminates with what may be the big screen’s most intense racial confrontation in a film set in contemporary America since Do the Right Thing. And the police play a role in the clash as they did in Spike Lee’s 1989 drama
In Dear White People the mixed race female protagonist Samantha White or “Sam” (Tessa Thompson) asks a white theater box office ticket seller: “Can we have a movie with, you know, characters in it, instead of stereotypes wrapped in Christian dogma?” Dear White People is arguably that movie. Scoring awards at the Sundance and Palm Springs Film Festivals, DWP is at the forefront of the cinematic surge of Black-themed films that propelled 12 Years a Slave to Best Picture, acting and writing Oscars last year.
In DWP Sam, a film student, screens her course project Rebirth of a Nation for stunned college cinema students. Featuring Black actors in “whiteface,” the militant moviemaker’s silent short subverts celluloid stereotypes, stirring classroom controversy with its deconstruction of movie minstrelsy. Sam’s work references D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist Civil War-era epic The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was likewise screened almost a century ago at the White House, where Pres. Woodrow Wilson supposedly exclaimed: “It’s like history written with lightning!”
Writer/director Justin Simien’s Dear White People is like current affairs written with enlightening ideas about the state of race relations in today’s supposedly “post-racial” USA. Although DWP was shot and its release date chosen before the police slaying of Brown at Ferguson, DWP is an eerie motion picture prophecy of the Missouri civil disturbances. With a soundtrack ranging from “Swan Lake” to hip-hop to bebop DWP is so imaginatively rendered that at a screening Thompson gushed: “This is a new genre Justin has made. It’s satire, but it’s real. It’s all those things.”
In June Simien introduced DWP’s LA Film Festival gala screening by telling 800 theatergoers: “The point of the movie really is to start a conversation.” That it’s bound to do, but there’s nothing black and white in this complex comedy drama. Full of humor -- at the LAFF presentation Simien drolly reassured “white people in the audience… you have permission to laugh” -- as well as ethnic angst, DWP is a cross between 1978’s Animal House and Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing.
Simien’s sophisticated satire is set at Winchester University, a fictitious Ivy League school where Blacks are 2 percent of the student body. Biracial Sam (the 30-ish Thompson, who appeared in 2010’s For Colored Girls, is reportedly of African-American/ White/ Mexican/ Central American ancestry and sported long blondish hair at the LAFF gala) is their strident, if conflicted, leader. A DJ, Sam delivers caustic commentaries over campus airwaves, from which the movie’s title is derived, such as: “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two.” Sam adds that drug dealers don’t count and tells a professor her 15 page thesis is about how Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy flick Gremlins “is actually about suburban white fear of Black culture.”
In what appears to be a surprising upset Sam is elected house president of the fictional historically Black residence hall Armstrong/Parker House, defeating her more accommodationist opponent, the buff Troy (Brandon Bell). Troy represents the establishment, as his father is Winchester’s Dean (veteran thesp Dennis Haysbert, who played President/Senator David Palmer in FX’s pro-torture 24 TV series from 2001-2007, as well as political prisoner Nelson Mandela in 2007’s The Color of Freedom). To compound matters Troy dumped Sam in favor of the white bread Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), daughter of Winchester’s patronizing President Herbert Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen, whose character asserts: “Racism is over in America. The only people thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.”). On the other hand, despite her nationalistic bluster, Sam is clandestinely close to the white Gabe (Justin Dobies).
Sam spearheads a campaign opposing the administration’s “Randomization of Housing Act,” which would end Armstrong/Parker’s status as an African American sanctum. In an uproarious scene President Fletcher’s son, lily-white Kurt (Kyle Gallner), and his Caucasian cohorts are exiled from the hall’s dining room. Kurt edits Winchester’s prominent humor magazine, Pastiche, which is similar to Dartmouth’s Jack-O-Lantern and Harvard’s Lampoon.
Two more DWP Black characters seek to become mass media figures -- but unlike Sam, do so even if it means compromising their ethnic identities. Sporting the big screen’s biggest Afro since 1970s’ Blaxploitation flicks, the gay, nerdy, misfit Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, who played the young Chris Rock in the 2005-2009 Everybody Hates Chris TV series) goes undercover to write an expose of Sam and Winchester’s Black millieu in his bid to become the sole current African American staff reporter for the university’s Winchester Bugle newspaper, with its New York Times adviser.
In her quest for celebrity, the hair conking, blue eye contact wearing, self-denying Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris, who played Dawn Chambers in 2014 episodes of AMC’s Mad Men TV series) appears ready to sellout other African Americans (whom, Coco insists on her Doing Time at an Ivy League video blog, she’s lighter-skinned than), as she strives to star in a reality TV show. According to Simien, “Helmut [Malcolm Barrett] is a producer on the show Black Face / White Place which is scouting for Black subjects that live, work, or study in predominately white environments. He is vying for his episode to be spun off into its own series, and thinks Coco might be his ticket.”
Status conscious Coco also beds Troy and agrees to host Pastiche’s annual Halloween party at Garmin House, the clubhouse where Kurt lives. The bash has an “unleash your inner Negro” theme: Caucasians costumed as “ghetto” caricatures party in blackface, Afro wigs, gangsta rapper bling bling, etc., as outrageous stereotypes of how bigots perceive girlz and boyz n the hood. When Sam and others at Armstrong/Parker House catch word of the racist revelry, they rush to Garmin House along with Asian and Latino allies to confront the minstrel-like merrymakers. All hell breaks loose in American cinema’s most powerful modern day racial row in a quarter century, since the riot at Sal’s pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
Following the LA FilmFest screening dreadlocked film critic Elvis Mitchell, host of public radio’s The Treatment, moderated a Q&A with DWP cast and crew. Mitchell called Sam “the engine of the movie,” and Thompson stated: “I fell in love with the script… I hadn’t read anything like it ever. From the perspective of being a woman it’s not very often you get a script where there’s a female character that’s not only just the object of the narrative, but a subject of the narrative… I’m not sure that I got a script before where I wanted to meet this person, I want to sit down with this person and have a dialogue with him. That’s exactly what the film satisfies, it makes you just want to talk about things. That’s the pleasure of making movies… that are not only a reflection of the culture but framing it. I hope that’s what this movie does.”
Brandon Bell discussed his role: “Troy represents a lot of us. He puts on different faces depending on which crowd he’s in front of… At the core of Troy, his intentions are good -- he’s got a lot of pressures and expectations from the outside world. He’s trying to balance that with what he wants -- he’s a college student, it should be a time of exploring… But Troy’s life is mapped out, especially given the relationship with his father, which is very militaristic… He really gets away with lying to every single person -especially himself.”
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Asked by Mitchell how people respond to him after seeing the movie Kyle Gallner, who plays the racially insensitive son of Winchester’s president, quipped: “I’ll be shocked if I get to my car alive… [Kurt] just does what he wants.”
Simien revealed that while writing drafts of DWP “the Trayvon Martin thing happened, I saw the whole post-racial bubble really bursting. Then for me the script became about something. This interesting Black experience became about the American-Black experience. What does it mean to be Black now? Is there still racism?” The subsequent events at Ferguson appear to answer those questions.
In interviews this critic asked Simien and Thompson what their takes on the state of race relations in 2014 America are? Simien replied: “I think that we’re probably doing better than we ever have before but there’s a long way to go. And there’s a bit of discrepancy between what I think some people hope and think we are and where we actually are. It’s not even just really a Black issue. For me, in terms of representation, which is my primary -- that’s the thing I can influence because I’m a filmmaker and storyteller, I provide things for the culture to digest. The representation alone is just so far off, it’s so out of whack with what America actually looks like and feels like.”
Thompson, who reportedly studied cultural anthropology at Santa Monica College, answered thoughtfully: “I don’t know. I feel like we’re in a space where we want to feel like we’re post-racial until we’re at a standstill about talking. Until there’s these eruptions, like the Trayvon Martin case; like what happened with [the L.A.] Clippers [vis- à-vis Donald Sterling’s racist remarks]. Then we are in opposition and we have heated conversations where we feel like we can’t see eye-to-eye. Quite frankly, we’re in a dangerous place… Because some of these parties that are happening are acting out about wanting to talk about issues and wanting to move past them so we can live in a space where we’re more relaxed. I think globalization and the Internet have brought us more closer as far as humanity -- but in some ways have moved us apart, in a weird way. So there’s kind of a schism there. If we could have conversations a little more often we’d be in a better space. I don’t know how you do that, I don’t know how you orchestrate that societally. I feel like that’s necessary.”
This journalist asked the writer/director and actress what they thought Pres. Obama had done for Black people in America, besides the obvious morale booster of having Blacks in the White House? Simien responded: “I think Barack Obama’s done a lot of things for America. His stance on a few things can be controversial. I think he’s done as much for Black people as he’s done for everyone in America.” Thompson added: “Honestly, I guess a sense of hope and pride. When he got into office I was sad my grandfather had passed before he could see that. It would have really, really meant a lot to him. That’s an immaterial thing but it’s incredibly important.”
When pressed to name any Obama administration legislation or policies that specifically benefit Blacks, such as LBJ’s “Great Society”, Simien and Thompson couldn’t cite one program. “I mean, that’s not my forte -- I don’t know,” Simien admitted.
Asked if she had African American historical role models for her DWP character Thompson proclaimed: “Yeah, definitely Angela Davis… I got to hear her speak recently, which was like a dream come true. But she was certainly a model. And… also Kathleen Cleaver, who I also met and came to set to visit us on this movie I’m doing now… a film called Selma that’s about the voting rights of 1965… It’s directed by Ava DuVernay and it’s about Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders… [British-born actor] David Oyelowo [2013’s The Butler, 2012’s Lincoln] is fantastic [as King]… I play Diane Nash, she was sort of the pioneer of the student movement -- students again. She was a member of SNCC and also of CORE. She was a nonviolent organizer that was one of the key players in the bus rides that happened in Montgomery and Nashville.”
Selma also co-stars Oprah Winfrey as activist Annie Lee Cooper, who punched a racist cop for clubbing her to prevent Cooper from voting; Tim Roth plays Gov. George Wallace; Tom Wilkinson is LBJ; Cuba Gooding, Jr. is movement attorney Fred Gray (who represented Rosa Parks and King); and hip-hop artist Common is Freedom Rider James Bevel, whom Diane Nash married.
According to Thompson Selma should be released by December. She added: “So we’re talking about the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and when they were scouting locations Ava DuVernay happened upon all these signs in parts of the South that said: ‘If you’re having trouble voting’ -- they were hotlines you could call. And she was sort of like ‘So not that much has changed,’ you know?”
Thompson went on to say: “I think there’s this idea that because we have all of our quote ‘civil rights’ that we’re in a really good place and so people should feel okay. And it makes it an awkward space if you actually want to talk about something that is a problem or a way that you feel like you’re being held back because of the color of your skin and misconceptions because of it. I don’t know -- I think we’re in a tricky space. We have some work to do but I feel optimistic that we can do it.”
Indeed, DWP closes on a lovely note of optimism and racial conciliation as Sam reveals her deepest secret to Gabe. “The bridge scene -- for me, that was the movie,” Thompson said of the finale of Dear White People, which is riding the wave of new Black-themed films, including Selma, Nightingale (starring Oyelowo as an Iraq War vet), Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in this period drama) and John Ridley’s Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All is By My Side (starring musician André Benjamin).
The “culture war” is coming soon to a theater near you: Dear White People starts its nationwide theatrical release on October 17.
Film historian/critic Ed Rampell majored in cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is the author of “Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States” and co-author of three film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).