The stylistically playful Dear White People is another bright stroke of colour amongst the latest films which deal with racial issues surrounding young people in today’s prismatic melting pot. In contrast to the usual American campus flicks filled with middle-class white fashion cliques, jocks and nerdy loners, Dear White People focuses on depicting the tension between a group of well spoken highly-educated upper-middle class black students against their more screen-familiar white “counterparts”. Plenty of multi-media elements to the film, including online videos, film-within-a-film moments and on-screen phone messages throw the film into today’s world whilst still using newspaper headlines and black-and-white to hark back to times when divisions in race were on a more elementary level.
The tension presented is complicatedly accurate, especially the attention surrounding the two mixed race characters, in particular Samantha played by Tessa Thompson (Selma, 2014). Being part of the black fraternity she seems to feel uncomfortable expressing her mixed-race heritage. She roots herself in a dedicated fight for black rights whilst keeping her white boyfriend, who we later find out she loves, a secret from the other students. Later she lets out her guilty feelings about having felt this same way about her own white father having lived in fear of not being understood by other children and teachers in school. Thompson brings a stern passion to her performance as she journeys through the stages of her social development. She won best breakthrough performance at the 2014 African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) where Dear White People also won best independent feature film.
Coco (T.Parris) brought an alternative perspective into the light with her “whiteness” in style and social circle who, in turn, struggles to be taken seriously by both the black and white students. Similarly, Troy (B.P.Bell) attempts to keep his reputation among the students and his strict father, who is also the Dean, working closely with the white school president, Fletcher, who insists “racism doesn’t exist anymore”.
I particularly enjoyed and noticed the switch of the traditional “male gaze” to an obvious, I suppose we could call, “female-gaze”. There were long, full-framed shots of Troy’s naked, rippling torso as he sat in his bathroom smoking weed and writing jokes. Similarly in his post-coital scene with Coco the camera focuses on Troy’s male body rather than Coco’s body which is actually mostly off-screen. Coco’s sexuality was only highlighted by sweeping camera shots when she was dolled-up and dressed to impress with the intention of receiving attention from fellow students.
The much discussed issue of black male sexuality is explored at three obvious points in the film. There is a scene between Troy and his white girlfriend where she refers to his “big black cock” when he avoids sexual interaction with her. There is the previous mention of Sam feeling under pressure to begin a romantic relationship with a fellow black student, Reggie, as he is the “most eligible black brother on campus” but, most refreshingly, there is the socially uncomfortable homosexual character Lionel (T.J.Williams). It is suggested that because of his sexuality, interests and style that he chose not to join the black majority house and instead stay with the white students but in fact the climax of the narrative sees Lionel being beaten violently by a white student who felt Lionel threatened his masculinity.
Written, directed and produced by Justin Simien this is his debut feature film, winning him the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent. Simien says, “In black communities, I was always trying to figure out what shade and type of black person I should be. That inspired me to tackle what I thought would be an interesting new point of view of black experience in America.” Although the American university backdrop is rather unique to the USA, this film not only explores “blackness” it explores identity in general which globalises the issues.
The films ending credits contain images from real-life “black” campus parties that have come to be somewhat popular in American universities, where students dress up in blackface and dance to hip hop whilst sporting chains and basically perform a very stereotypical black “show”. Coco puts this down to “they just want to be like us for one night” but it’s ultimately left to the audience to really make their minds up over this subject. With lots of interwoven relationships, campus happenings and university hierarchies the drama is satisfyingly dealt with through a fast-paced narrative and highly articulate characters that has driven the story forward from festivals onto the big screen.