Originally posted on: 2014/11/13
“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” – Audrey Lorde
Dear White People (DWP) has been one of the most anticipated films of the year for Afro-Canadian audiences, as well as Black and other moviegoers worldwide. What started out as a relatively simple project by college student Justin Simien in 2012, it quickly caught on and went viral. After an incredibly successful Indiegogo campaign, Simien succeed in reaching almost double his goal, raising an astonishing $40,000. The people had clearly spoken – they wanted this movie to be made. Two years, two stars (Tyler James Williams & Dennis Haysbert) and two awards later, the movie made it to Canadian cinemas. As a self-identified Black mixed womanist, I was absolutely going to see the film as soon as possible, despite being sick in bed with a bad cold for almost a week. However, as a person whose almost every spare hour is spent on reading and discussing critical race, gender, sexuality and intersectionality theory (with a smattering of quantum physics), I had serious reservations on if the film would deliver the radical anti-Black racist commentary that the audiences (or at least this audience member) was hoping for.
Ten years ago, DWP would have been my favourite movie
After suffering through too many extremely problematic Tyler Perry dramas, or bawling through incredibly depressing Spike Lee joints, this movie promised to have both wit and a message in very accessible and youth friendly packaging. Taking place entirely on a fictional Ivy League campus called “Winchester University”, issues like Blackface during Hallowe’en and college campus parties, white folks using the n-word, intrusive hair touching and cultural appropriation are all brought up in this film – even the mythical beast of “reverse-racism” is broached. This alone would have been enough to woo me ten years ago – but there was more! The denial of racism and the new post-racial neo-liberal stance are also checked off the list, as well as ideas around the ways in which white folks can take up space and the concept of white privilege in general. White fear of black organization, community building and collectivity gets thrown in to top off the cake for the “Black-white relations in North America” discussion. Ten years ago, this would have meant so much to me, because like many Black folks in the West, I was starving for representation. On the flip side however, I would have had no clue how to articulate these issues at that time, experiencing only the usual deep confusion and resentment I felt about not knowing how to vocalize and deconstruct the many triggers & microagressions I would face. From this frame of reference, the two themes that stood out in the movie the most for me were gender and sexuality, and I’ll start with the good news.
The main character, Sam, is a biracial Black woman with sexual agency. She has two cisgender (cis) male partners (one her white TA, one a Black radical, Reggie) and the world doesn’t end! Both men know they are courting her, and she even tells the TA to “get on his knees” in the one and only sex scene – yaow! Another way that gender enters, via an intersectional lens, is through “Coco”, a dark-skinned woman who has a short but important soliloquy about shadeism and how dark-skinned Black women can be treated in heterosexual Black relationships.
Sexuality takes the stage via Lionel, our first star appearance and poster boy, Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris, and the only queer Black character in the movie. While awkward and shy at first, he is accepted by the Black community after leading the Black Students’ Union into battle against a very triggering black-face party. This is a long awaited and much needed counter-narrative to the stereotyped Black homophobia we see in the media. He also is given two love scenes with another cis man of colour, which as far as I know, has never happened in a Black pop movie and/or in a major cinema chain like Cineplex. Of course, for most marginalized communities, waiting for the media to confirm your identity is an exercise in futility and erasure, however seeing two men of colour kiss is an enormous step forward in my books. And while fetishization and exotification unfortunately creep into both the straight and queer relationships in the film, it is a subtle but important message, as both issues can be very problematic and often silenced aspects of interracial relationship structures.
10 years later, I feel sad for my younger self
The first thing I did after exiting the movie was post “Just saw Dear White People….So many emotions…Going to need some time to deconstruct..” on my social media. I was stunned. “What have we just watched?” I asked my also Black partner as we slowly made our way to the subway in silence, glancing at each other every now and then with the same “deer in the headlights” look. The movie, perhaps valiantly but most likely naively, tried to pack way too much into 108 minutes. While Simien did touch on very real and important issues as detailed above, it also missed the mark on those other and equally relevant issues by a longshot. If I didn’t have the critical thinking skills I now possess though, this would have been lost on me. In particular, it makes me sad because had it not been for moving to Toronto and learning from some really amazing folks, I would still most likely not have the critical thinking skills to analyze this movie. This serves as a reminder that many folks also have not had that chance. To this point, it is extremely problematic that the ability to articulate your oppression in a healthy way is often a privilege and very inaccessible. Of course, everyone has the power to speak their truths, but I know for myself that being raised in a rural environment steeped in white supremacy, what I thought was “truth” was so wrong. Much like when Melissa Harris Perry speaks about the idea of when one tries to stand up in a crooked room, crooked starts to look “normal”. With that in mind, allow me to dive right into the “crooked” parts of DWP.
As I mentioned above – Sam is a biracial Black woman with sexual agency – which is so important. She is also the leader of the Black Student’s Union which is great too. However, aside from that, the movie gets a F for gender. In total, there are 3 cis straight women characters: the “good” biracial woman Sam, the “bad” dark skinned woman Coco, and the ignorant infantilized white daughter of the President of the university. That is it. No trans* folks anywhere. Or folks with (dis)abilities for that matter. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the female characters is that the two black women are pitted against each other in yet another story written by a Black male voice. So while shadeism is brought up by Coco, her character is still imbued with negative stereotypes. She is a “bad” Black woman and of the three stereotypes we tend to see in the media around Black women characters (Jezebel, Mammy, & Sapphire), she embodies the “Sapphire” stereotype, or a “mad Black woman”. Coco picks fights with the “good”, biracial Sam. She wears blue contacts and wigs because she wants to be white, and is portrayed as a “race traitor” by trying to gain access to whiteness and capitalist wealth because she is cash poor, yet another intersection. However, despite the time spent on her bad qualities, her character is given almost no depth outside of her turbulent and misoynoir-istic relationships with white and Black men. In contrast, the “good” Black women, like Sam, all have natural hair. This is another sign that Coco is bad, as she wears smooth straight wigs. At one point near the end of the movie, she rips her blonde wig off, as a sign of renouncing her “bad” ways, but alas it is too little too late. Sam on the other hand embodies a different stereotype – that of the tragic mulatto. In fact, she is called this to her face by the “white knight”, her white boyfriend. Sam informs him he can’t say mulatto but he proceeds to yell it over and over again to show her that he can. He also shames her for being a “fake” Black person and for trying too hard to be Black. She later apologizes to him for being embarrassed by his whiteness in a cringe-worthy scene. And while Sam is the leader of the Black Students’ Union, they are totally dysfunctional and ambivalent without her guidance, despite the strange relationship her character has to Blackness. The Black male characters sharply contrast the emotionally volatile women and are very cold and unfeeling. Reggie, Sam’s black radical boyfriend, sees her crying and still expects her to speak at a rally, not even asking if she’s OK. The Black Dean is strict and unloving towards his son, and perhaps not surprisingly, so is his son towards women. Those are the main cis black male characters.
Returning now to Lionel, the groundbreaking but token queer character who, from many accounts, is an audience favourite, followed only by Sam. Lionel’s character is important and I’m glad Simien included him in the screenplay. I also have no idea how Simien identifies his sexuality, but both queer and straight identified Black script writers get plenty of flack for including cis gay love scenes in their popular culture work (see Shonda Rhimes). Keeping in mind however that even being slightly inclusive can be a ploy to be edgy and get ratings, I am still heartened to see a Black filmmaker be inclusive. Of course, much like writing about women often goes wrong, so does writing about queer folks. First and foremost, moviegoers deserve a massive trigger warning for homophobic violence. Lionel is constantly bullied by Kyle, the son of the President of the university. In fact, he gets sexually harassed – almost to the point of being assaulted – again by Kyle. His answering machine is changed to a homophobic & sexualized one – also by Kyle. Furthermore, Lionel gets physically attacked by – you guessed it – Kyle, who simultaneously hurls a homophobic slur at him. Lionel responds by kissing him, which is supposed to disgust and shame Kyle in front of a crowd, as well as be hilarious to the audience. SO SO triggering and problematic. It is important to note that this scene, along with Lionel’s love scenes, are being viewed in public theatres across North America where, in my experience in watching it in downtown Toronto, the audience is audibly disgusted and groaning, only adding to the many triggers.
Lastly, Black respectability politics abound. Black respectability refers to ascribing to a set of behaviours, clothing, speech, aesthetics etc that are theoretically supposed to protect Black folks from anti-Black racism & violence. However, it is overwhelmingly proven that they do no such thing. Ivy league schools, and arguably university degrees in general, are a perfect example of Black respectability aspirations. As mentioned, the whole movie takes place in an ivy league school (seemingly Harvard), which is strictly out of reach for most Black folks in America and abroad. The Black Dean, our second star appearance, played by none other than Allstate Insurance salesman Dennis Haysbert, is deeply embroiled in respectability politics. We learn that he has been competing with the white Principal, Fletcher, since 1972 when they too were students at Winchester. The Dean tells his son that he had better grades than Fletcher, yet he is the Dean and Fletcher is the Principal. This of course is not unusual that Black folks do not have access to nearly as many higher level & C-suite positions in North America, yet his obsession with power and success (both his own and his son’s) scream of respectability politics. Furthermore, he instructs his son to break up with Sam and tells him to date Fletcher’s white daughter as a strategy…and he does it. Lionel’s character also comes in contact with respectability politics via his hair, which he keeps in an “unkempt” afro. However, when he later feels accepted by Black folks, he gets a “good” (low) haircut. As a final and strange affront, after the massively triggering blackface party that is shut down by the Black Students’ Union, the police come and only arrest Kyle. No charges are laid, which is often the case, but this in stark reality with the well documented over-policing of Black bodies by the state. Not only would Kyle not have been arrested, the Black students certainly would have, and would have most likely been charged and sentenced or even killed as well.
To conclude, I think that this movie will spark an enormous amount of conversation which is generally a good thing. Entire theses can and most likely will be written around a number of topics and characters portrayed in this movie. I also think it’s no small feat that it made it to the big screen and that it was made by a debuting Black filmmaker. However, while no activism is perfect, there were way too many problematic issues for me that further marginalized and/or erased members of the Black community, namely: dark skinned women, queer and trans* folks, and folks with (dis)abilities. Paraphrasing from Audrey quote, we do not live single issues lives, and thus we can’t have single issues movies misinforming the public and erasing our community’s most vulnerable. Lastly, as a Black mixed identified woman, I will happily call out the fact that centering a “confused” biracial woman in a movie that is supposed to be about anti-Black racism is super problematic. Realistically, the fact of the matter is that if the movie had actually been on point, it would have never made it to the big screen. So in yet another example of “and in other news, water is wet”, another mainstream movie not only disappoints, but is in many ways straight up violent to its viewers.