*Spoilers Below

Justin Simien’s film Dear White People, is a smart, funny, satire (with a handful of surprising twists along the way) that complicates black twenty-somethings’ negotiation of blackness at a predominately white institution of higher education. Aesthetically the film tries to hit all the right notes, loosely paying homage to classic 90’s films like Spike Lee’s School Daze, and John Singleton’s Higher Learning, without feeling bound to the political intensities that were seeping out of the Reagan years and into Bush the First’s. Where Lee and Singleton’s voices may seem too black for our 21st century post-black, post-racial, increasingly queer-friendly sensibilities, Dear White People attempts a pointed, but fresh and contemporary, contribution to the difficulties of negotiating one’s relation to blackness as a twenty-something in a predominately white institution. Where Lee and Singleton’s voices may feel most politically distancing, Simien’s feels cool and witty. It’s no wonder the film has gained so much traction. From the moment it’s trailer hit the internet this summer, scores of people, from various races, have been tweeting, retweeting, and sharing it up and down their timelines. Clearly there is an audience for this film.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Dear White People presents the complication of black middle-class identity––its diversity and multiplicity––at the expense of black radical politics, which it ultimately disavows by the film’s end.

While the film purports to be about the diversity of black identity, there are also two white men who serve as the two poles the complication of black identity occurs between. On the one end is Kurt Flecher, the entitled white son of the fictional Winchester University’s president. He’s undoubtedly a douchebag. He’s a bro, the head-editor of Winchester’s highly-esteemed humor magazine, the sarcastic white guy in your History 101 class who thinks affirmative action is reverse racism and white men are the most oppressed social group. He exudes the smugness of smart white guys who know they have a following and know the rules aren’t for them. He’s the perfect villain for Dear White People. The other white man, Gabe, is the bland, argumentative TA for the movie’s biracial black radical, Sam White (who is also the host of the incendiary radio show the film is titled after and involved in organizing black students against various manifestations of racism on the university’s campus). She and Gabe are also secretly sleeping together. Interestingly enough, though throughout the film he maintains pointed writing, satirizing the black characters and Kurt, Simien’s film doesn’t turn its satirical lens on Gabe. Throughout the movie his dripping white liberalism is woefully uncritiqued and unrecognized as a position even when he delves into man/whitesplaining Sam’s identity to her, narrating who he thinks the real Sam is and how she’s being co-opted by a black radical man, Reggie, who is repressing her authentic, artistic self (which is laughably conflated with anarchism).

That Gabe is the end of one of the central narrative movements––that is, the resolution of Sam’s racial anxieties about whether she can have black radical politics and date a white guy––and that we arrive at this romantic pairing without him having undergone transformation, without him having any relation to blackness or care for black people outside of his relationship to Sam, suggests the political orientation of this film. By the movie’s end, Dear White People dissolves into a black liberalism that renders it safe for everybody but not particularly helpful either.

The primary liberal move of the film is figured in Sam and Lionel, the black biracial woman with daddy issues and the black gay nerd. Neither of them ‘fits’ into what is normalized as blackness. They each represent a swing to unhealthy ends of a pendulum. Sam’s black radicalism won’t let her be honest about her feelings for Gabe, her love of Taylor Swift, or that her favorite filmmaker is white. Her black radicalism is suffocating her individuality. Meanwhile, Lionel’s fear of black homophobia, and black anti-nerd prejudice makes him distant from the other black people on campus until his experiences of racism in all his housing assignments leave him with only the black dormitory left to call home. In between Sam and Lionel’s negotiations of black anxiety, the other black people who are unquestionably black but politically self-serving  or politically radical are the foils to the liberal formation of Sam and Lionel. By the film’s end, the two characters through struggling to reconcile their desires and the multiplicity of their identities with their blackness have achieved a state of balance. Lionel ends up as the catalyst for the disruption of the racist hip-hop themed party Kurt’s humor magazine, “Pastiche,” throws. Apparently, what he needed was to blacken up a bit and recognize that black people are down with black gay nerds too. For Samantha, who starts the film as a black radical, she ends up overcoming that radicalism and its attempts to confront the political powers of the university in favor of an artistic anarcho-libertarianism. The romantic reconciliation of her biraciality occurs when she accepts her feelings for the white liberal, Gabe (which is also the working out of her daddy issues and acceptance of her white father), and they go off to be free in their love together while the black students who still identify as radical give the couple the side-eye. How intolerant of them!

Meanwhile, the two black students who are solidly, to their chagrin, situated as black, still haven’t reached a state of enlightenment. One is still following his emotionally unavailable father’s wishes into campus politics instead of being his authentic self, the other is unapologetic about not wanting to be black but her skin color, in part, makes her undesirable and her overcoming of blackness an impossibility. The radical black women in the film are not really heard from.

That the two characters with the most resolution are the ones who achieve a state of balance in their identities is a typical move of liberalism. There are two sides one can fall into, fear of being black and black radicalism and the path enlightened black people need to take is somewhere between the two. At first it seems like the film is serious about confronting the politics and power disparities that exist on college campuses between black students and the university, but it very quickly becomes clear that the black radicalism on screen is simply a foil for enlightenment. It also becomes clear that the working model of racism is one of accumulating micro-aggressions which lead to a party, primarily serving to reinforce the idea that if white people simply changed their behavior and stopped touching black people’s hair or stopped confusing black people for each other, we’d be free of white supremacy. The glimpses of institutional attempts to dismantle black life on campus are brought in for the dramatic effect they can conjure and quickly left by the way side, magically resolving by the films end.

Thus, in Dear White People blackness is primarily a rallying cry against the accumulation of micro-aggressions into a racist hip-hop party. Blackness is not the thing we need to wake us up, to bring us to the commons, as it is at the end of Lee’s School Daze, instead, it’s the thing we want to be able to forget about so that we can be free, like the white liberals. Free to be individuals, artists, politicians, and nerds. More than anything, Dear White People shows the failure of black liberalism to end up anywhere other than where we started, but this time without blackness as anything other than funny cultural references and inside jokes or something to be defended against those white people who don’t get it or superseded by those white people whose political neutrality is above critique.

In Dear White People blackness is evacuated of radical politics because it is evacuated of the radical sociality that would sustain such a politic. At the end, as is always the case in black liberal discourse, black radicalism, which is to say a loyalty to preserving the commons that blackness announces, is the thing to be laughed off, dismissed, and overcome, in the name of individual liberty and balance. One thing that remains clear at the end of Simien’s film is that acclaim and aesthetics don’t make for a race movie that evades our neoliberal moment. Instead we see blackness here packaged in an acceptable and neutral way, it’s edge ground down to a dull whine about white privilege and micro-aggressions that continually defers what brought about the power imbalances in the first place. The film is a series of sketches of black life that fails to think of black life as anything other than annoyance and faux-radicalism, the desire to overcome the constraints of blackness and achieve actuality in individuality while maintaining blackness as a cool cultural reference.

Perhaps for some this is the vision of a turn in black filmmaking, but mimicking the cool irony of hipster know-it-alls is something I could do without. Whereas a film like Barry Jenkins Medicine for Melancholy gets the difficulties of navigating one’s black identity in predominantly white spaces, it simultaneously refuses the easy resolutions of DWP while also refusing to portray it’s black characters as wallowing in inauthenticity or a desire to overcome blackness (while at the same time suggesting there’s larger economic precarity and white supremacist displacement at work in producing some of the anxieties Micah and Jo feel). This is not to say that we can only have one style of black film today, and I find Simien’s debut film holds much possibility. I am, however, suggesting that it’s possible to do what Simien attempts in his film, complicating and nuancing our ideas of black identity, without the disavowals Dear White People performs.

3 thoughts

  1. This is a great piece, though I did enjoy the film. If I am being generous, I think you could make an argument that the resolution scene on the bridge is a somewhat meta/self-conscious nod to cinema in general, ie something like Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Or, closer to our time, Whit Stillman. I somehow just doubt Simien, if asked, would suggest identities are ever so neatly resolved, and the white dad/white lover thing is so incredibly maudlin, melodramatic, it almost has to be slightly ironic, right? I hope so…..

  2. I think that the disavowal of radicalism is definitely a strong point in this critique, but with reference to Gabe, why do we keep glossing over the fact that the dude fucks his student? Even this article notes that “[Sam] and Gabe are secretly sleeping together” without addressing the fact that this relationship constitutes sexual harrassment.

    1. So, there certainly are some ethically suspect issues regarding their relationship, but I also want to note, even with the power disparities of him as TA and she being his student, they are both consenting adults and I think simply reducing their relationship to one of sexual harassment is overstating the ethical problematic. Is there a particular reason you are wanting to make their relationship one of sexual harassment other than the discrepancies in power? Or do you think that power discrepancy is why their relationship is structured as it is? (which, I tend to think is unhealthy)

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