Culture //

Sandstone Bigotry

Shareeka Helaluddin reviews the toothless, but necessary, Dear White People.

Dear White People Cast

Dear White People, the title in itself is unambiguous in its target audience and purpose, unsettling and provocative with just three words. At times the film is as commanding as it is witty, centring the experiences of black students in a predominantly white institution, parodying the elite and privileged lives of rich white kids. Despite this, I expected so much more from the film; it fell far short of what the trailer set up. The film was no doubt entertaining, but Dear White People seemed to be made for white people, turning the potential for a brilliant satire on racial tension into something palatable and accommodating to the white gaze it intended to subvert in the first place.

The film follows the lives of four black students grappling with their identities in the fictional Winchester University, a prestigious, mostly white Ivy League school. Sam White is a film student and revolutionary-in-training. She’s the president of the Black Student Union (BSU) and hosts a radio show called ‘Dear White People,’ dropping truths like, “Dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” Arguably the best aspect of the film is the dialogue, especially Sam’s, even if it is sometimes delivered through long, lecture-like speeches. There is a constant supply of savvy and relevant critiques on race, even if it is sometimes wrapped in a whole lot of pop culture references.

Sam generates hate from many students, including archetypal rich kid Kurt (“sometimes the hardest thing to be in the American work force is an educated white guy”). Sam runs for president against Troy, who maintains the facade of an overachieving—non-threatening—black man to gain favour with the college ‘elite’. Then there’s Coco, who has erased any association to her impoverished past in Chicago and craves mainstream success via reality TV. And Lionel, a slightly awkward black gay man who is “too white for the black kids, and not black enough for the white kids”. All these subplots eventually collide in the final scene, which sees the white campus elite throw a blackface ‘Hip-Hop’ themed costume party. Guests are invited to “release their inner Negro” and the racial problems plaguing the University are made stark.

What ensues is a violent clash between those at the party and the black students protesting it (and rightfully so). The event is widely reported yet quickly diffused and sparks little change; culminating in a message of moderation. Despite all the race talk in the movie, there is little critique of the systematic racism that allows such parties to happen and the racial inequity that is sustained at Winchester. You could nod in agreement or laugh out of sadness as bigotry, microaggression, and outright racism are exposed and contested unabashedly. Yet, the plot lines become neatly aligned and largely unchallenging.

Because of the structure of the film, characters aren’t explored as well as they can be. At points I almost felt like I was watching an extended pilot of what could be a really great series. The subplots aren’t developed and turn nuanced characters into a list of ‘issues’. Characters become tokens of representation but, unfortunately, not much more. It would have been great to further explore Sam’s experiences as a mixed-race woman, or Lionel’s experiences as a Black gay man and dealing with these intersections. But the film becomes less about the characters, and more about their necessary socialisation into the system. An opportunity is missed to explore how oppression is resisted, and to criticise racism without forfeiting coherent story telling.

The experiences seen in Dear White People will be somewhat familiar. This is the lived reality of so many students. The brunt of institutionalised racism and insidious racial tensions will resonate with those who often feel isolated and frustrated in glorified sandstone universities, not uncommon at the University of Sydney. It dismantles the myth that a tertiary education makes you more socially conscious or ‘aware’ of diverse experiences, instead illuminating how such institutions are often founded on inequity and perpetuate power and privilege.

Dear White People may not be as radical as people hoped, but it is nonetheless needed, and no less important. It provides some solace and catharsis through the occasional chuckle, but perhaps more significantly, it leaves lingering a dialogue about the nuance of racial oppression. This is the debut of filmmaker Justin Simien, who is afforded the rare opportunity to address race on his own terms and portray multiple stories of people of colour. This almost never happens, especially in mainstream channels of communication.  There’s a lot going for the film, but it misses opportunities to risk controversy and ignite progress, perhaps disappointing the legions of fans in the blogosphere who helped crowd fund Simien’s concept trailer into what was hoped to be an incendiary film. Throughout the film racist truths and the reality of being “a black face in a white place” are distilled, but it remains mostly entertaining, while foregoing a genuine engagement with race politics.

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