White people are whack. Trust me. I should know.
At any Ivy League school, racial tensions are somewhat high, yet, by the same token, aren’t totally through the roof where you’d expect there to be a riot every weekend or so. White people hang with white people; black people hang with black people; and sometimes, every so often, there’s a little mixture of the two. But that may all change when a very opinionated student, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), becomes a leader of a house and decides to take charge against the institution’s very white-privileged mind-set. Of course though, this causes plenty of more problems among the student-body and even threatens to rob the Dean (Dennis Haysbert) of his position, if he can’t get everything all fine and settled. But even worse, some students could lose what makes them who they really are, which isn’t just the color of their skin, but their heritage and just exactly who they represent. They lose that, there’s nothing else for them to stand for.
I have to give it to a movie like Dear White People – though it’s one that has a message I can’t particularly agree with, I like how bold it is in actually trying to discuss certain ideas and themes about race, equality, and class warfare, that so many movies step away from, in the hopes of not seeming “too controversial”. Most of this is in part due to the general idea from Hollywood that you can’t make a smart movie about race, that actually challenges the notions us citizens have about it, for the sole purpose that it’ll scare the money away. People won’t want to see it; advertisers will keep their name-brands very far away from it; and people will just bad-mouth it, solely because it’s too touchy about a subject, which in today’s general-sphere, is already as touchy as is.
With that said, most of the credit here goes to writer/director Justin Simien who, with his first feature, already shows plenty of promise with the messages he wants to bring to people’s minds. See, because with today’s day and age, everything is race-related. Race is a topic that not only influences in the way people speak, but in how they act. You can see it everywhere from what’s on TV, what’s in your video-games, what’s on your iPod, and hell, it’s even outside your door, you just have to step outside and look around a bit. Simien knows this and he makes most of the movie about this general topic, but goes one step further and tries to shuttle it all in with an ensemble story that doesn’t always work.
But to his defense, when it does work, Simien hits plenty of the right notes that not only got me thinking, but even talking with my fellow confidantes after the movie and wondering just whether or not we all whole heartedly agree with what Simien brings to the forefront here. And for me, it was quite simple: I didn’t agree with it, but then again, I don’t know if I was either.
See, where Simien lands with this movie is simply this: Race is a powerful force in our world and it affects every person’s everyday life, regardless of what color their skin, or heritage, may or may not be. I see this just about everyday and it’s nothing new to me. So, Simien shows this in a way that makes sense – every side of the race debate has their own story. Whites, blacks, mixed, Hispanics, gays, straights, all people have a certain viewpoint that they feel/share about the idea of race and equality; all of which are brought up reasonably and don’t seem to be pandering to one side in particularly.
That is, until it does.
Being that I am a young, white male, there is a part of me that understands that there is such a mechanism as white privilege out there in the world, and it doesn’t matter how hard somebody may, or may not try to avoid it, it will constantly plague our society. It follows me everywhere I go and as much as I don’t like it, it’s something that I’m being told I have to live with, whether or not I like it. Dear White People, and even Simien himself, tells me this same exact fact, but at the same time, does so in a way that feels slightly offensive to me. Like, for instance, because I am a white person, I will have everything I ever want in the palms of my hands, all because of my color, regardless of my financial-standings or general knowledge of the real world. Technically speaking, I could be as dumb as a door-knob, but because I am white, therefore, I will get any and everything that I could ever hope and dream for.
Not only does this message totally rub me the wrong way as is, but it’s presented as such in a way that makes me feel like Simien has it out for me, in particular, let alone the whole race that I represent. And no, I do not mean to stand in for every white person out there in the world who plans on seeing this – I am solely speaking from my point-of-view and, therefore, my reactions to this movie. Many other people, regardless of race, may have the same feelings as me, and many other people, once again, regardless of race, may definitely not have the same feelings as me. I know this, but where I’m speaking from here, is my viewpoint and if it offended me, then dammit, I’m going to let it be known!
Anyway, like I was saying before, where I felt angry with this movie was in how Simien had most of the white characters in this movie portrayed. The head dean of the school is portrayed as a money-grubbing, racist prick who, when confronted with the idea that his actions are racist, says that he knew that’s exactly what a black person would say. Okay, I can deal with this one character being a racist bigot, but it gets worse. Take his son, who is, honestly, portrayed as nothing more than another racist bigot who, because he’s young, wild, free, rich and allowed to do whatever he wants because his daddy practically runs the school, gets away with everything/anything he says or does. He makes some good points early on in the movie about race, but for the most part, has them all chucked out of the window once we see his true colors, and realize he’s just another one of those heartless, mean, and nasty frat bros who just wants to party, get drunk, laid, have a good time, and bully the weakest one he sees.
Add on the fact that he’s racist and you have a character that is definitely unlikable.
But when you put these two up against the black characters in this movie, it feels like there’s obviously a hell of a lot more attention and detailed paid to them. Sure, some of them have their faults, but mostly, it’s in due part because they want to be respected and accepted into a world which, frankly speaking, is white. The co-dean of the institution knows that he’ll never be the head dean because of race issues, but still tries to fit in by charming the white crowd at cocktails party and tells his son to wise up. The guy’s not a relatively likable guy, but whereas he’s technically considered to be “flawed”, the head dean is considered “villainous”.
Honestly though, this is just the surface – there’s plenty more instances in which the white characters in this film are portrayed/written in such a way that’s not only mean-spirited, but downright offensive. Not all white people act like this and neither do all black people, but Simien makes it clear that he favors one side over the other. Had this been a documentary, I’d been a little bit more forgiving, considering that we would have seen most of his manipulations come out in a positive way, but considering this is a narrative-feature, one which he wrote, directed, and practically built from the ground-up, I can’t help but look at it a lot more harshly.
But then again, that’s just my thoughts. Take them, or leave them. Do what you must.
Consensus: Bold and smart, Dear White People definitely has a lot on its mind, and though it lets it be known in thought-provoking, interesting ways, it still can’t help but seem to show its bias that may definitely offend some, while not be a problem for others. I’m more of in the former’s camp, though.
6 / 10 = Rental!!