Politically incorrect film reviews – Dear White People broadcasts the wrong message

Main cast

Tyler James Williams as  Lionel Higgins

Tessa Thompson as  Sam White

Kyle Gallner as Kurt Fletcher

Teyonah Parris as Colandrea “Coco” Conners

Brandon Bell as  Troy

Malcolm Barrett as  Helmut West

Dennis Haysbert  as the Dean

Justin Dobies as Gabe

Peter Syvertsen as President Hutchinson

Director: Justin Simien

Dear White People  cannot make up its mind  whether it should be  a comedy  out of the National Lampoon Animal House stable  or a serious drama.  At one moment there are halfway decent jokes such as a college radio  broadcast  announcing  that the minimum  number of black friends a white person must have if they were not to be called racist had been raised from one to two  with white listeners  reacting in panic-stricken fashion and at another ritual  expressions of  PC horror because a blackface party organised by white students is going to be held. This is a shame because the subject  – black students in a white dominated Ivy League university – has considerable possibilities for either form of film.

The film is  set in Winchester, a fictitious Ivy league university where the majority of students are white. The university’s white President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen) has decided to place students in  campus  accommodation on a colour-blind basis.  This is met with resistance  in an all-black  residential house  known as Armstrong/Parker.  A film production major and mixed-race  girl Sam White (Tessa Thompson)  unexpectedly wins the election for who is to be head of Armstrong/Parker  beating  Troy (Brandon Bell),  the son of Winchester’s  Dean and uses her position to begin  agitating for  Armstrong/Parker  to remain  all black.

Sam also  has her own college radio station named Dear White People which   unblushingly pushes black stereotypes of whites such as her broadcast requests  “Dear white people … please stop dancing”, “Dear white people please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you? “  When  the black dean  of Winchester (Dennis Haysbert)   tells her that the Dear White People broadcasts are racist  she responds  “ Black people cannot be racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race “. When challenged by her  boyfriend  Gabe (Justin Dobies ) about how she would feel if someone started  Dear Black People broadcasts,  her  smug black victimhood response is “No need. Mass media for Fox  make it clear what they think of us.”    You get the idea of where she is coming from.  Except you do not get the full picture because  her boyfriend is white and she has a secret liking for Taylor Swift, a distinct no no for a right-on black.

This type of  blurring of character is used frequently  in the film to demonstrate not that  everyone is the same under the skin,  but to offer an excuse for  further wallowing in black victimhood. The black students at Winchester U cannot complain of lack of opportunity or of being treated in a demeaning way, but they can still have a great appetite for  playing the victim.  This means they have to be  inventive. One of the ways is to claim that even privileged  blacks like them are under tremendous strain because  whites expect blacks to both conform to a stereotype  and be experts on black culture,  or at least experts on  what is perceived by both black and white as black culture. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) as a black gay student  who does not feel very black is the prime example in the film as he admits “I listen to Munford and sons and watch Robert Altman films”  and is told by a white girl on the student newspaper he wants to write for  that “You’re only technically black”.

Simien  is both black and gay and  judged by the screenplay he has produced, so obsessively  concerned about both that the need for basic  dramatic structure is tossed aside.    It is also a problem that he  wrote the screenplay as well as directing. This is always a difficult duality, particularly as the film is his first attempt at feature length direction.  It was also crowdfunded so there was not the usual  studio oversight.  Having a free hand as writer and director may sound fine in theory but it rests a great deal  on the individual who has the free hand.  In this case it is a serious mistake, not least because Simien is  very green as a  director.   This  inexperience shows because he  is  clearly under the impression that cramming in everything about a subject will result in a good film. The problem with this approach is that it destroys any plausible narrative as scenes  streak by without any continuous dramatic coherence holding them together. One can imagine Simiens  whilst directing ticking off one by one the  “what blacks think of whites”  set pieces he has created.

Examples of these set pieces are :

Mixed race light skinned blacks do better in a white world that dark skinned blacks. This is hung on the difference between in treatment of mixed race Sam White  and  authentically black Coco Connors (Teyonah Parris) by a white TV producer  of  TV reality show “Black Face/White Place” following Sam’s story but , rejecting  Coco pitch for a show  “Doing Time at an Ivy League”.

Troy has a white girlfriend which is seen not as integration but simply as a ploy white girls pull when they want to annoy their parents.

There is a good deal that is deliberately  non-PC  in the  film. A  white   hoax invite to the  party which causes outrage  is sent out  with an invocation to  “Liberate Your Inner Negro”, Sam White is described as “like the pissed off child of Spike Lee and Oprah”  and   Sam’s white boyfriend says “ I’m sick of your tragic mulatto bull” . But it has very little effect both because  there are too many “outrage” words and storyline  (even the most committed liberal or black activist can only be outraged so many times) and because of the unconvincing  nature of the outrage  shown.

On top of this jerky narrative there is the crude realisations of both the  characters and the drama such as it is.  The film  is littered with clumsily constructed stereotypes. Troy (Brandon Bell )  is the non-threatening black  who says things such as “I really don’t see the issue. Never ran into any lynch mob.” ; Sam White the threatening black;  Troy’s father ( Dennis Haysbert )the paranoid black parent  desperate for his son not to give whites  a chance to belittle him by  trying to make a career as a comedy writer instead of  being in a  respectable professional  occupation;  Kurt Fletcher ( Kyle Gallner) is the arrogant white boy with a hint of racism.

The comic book nature of the film as it moves swiftly from satirical point to satirical point robs  the actors of any chance for substantial character development. Within those confines  they all make a good fist of things with  Kyle Gallner and Brandon Bell being  especially convincing as the stereotypes they were asked to portray.

What is fascinating about the film is that  it contains  considerable anti-white racism,  but  Simiens seem to be oblivious to it.  The  white characters are allowed only subordinate parts   while the black characters remain centre stage. Black characters  have many jibes against whites while the white characters are allowed only a few token ripostes  but they are very token, for example,    Kyle Gallner  ventures “Sometimes I think that the hardest thing to be in the American workforce is educated white guy”. Consequently, the portrayal of whites in the film is  ultimately derogatory  whereas the blacks who are shown in less than a flattering light are in a different category. They may have prejudices about whites but these  are presented as being a consequence of  white racism both historical and present day.   The message of the film is that blacks may be ostensibly  racist  but the should not be censured or even mildly disapproved of because of the historical legacy, but whites are there to be pantomime villains to be booed at every opportunity.  Most probably this is not  a deliberate propaganda ploy by Simien but simply an unconscious  reproducing what is the default position for politically conscious blacks and white liberals.

There is a sharp  comedy of manners to be made of the relationship between whites and blacks in a privileged situation but this is not it. Ditto a really biting satire on white liberal mores when faced with  racial questions and the comfort blanket of black victimhood.  What the viewer is left to view  is a cinematic and ideological mess which is too soft centred to even provoke outrage.

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