feature: the race conversation becomes comical in justin simien’s ‘dear white people’

March 24, 2014

“Dear White People” is an independent film written and directed by Justin Simien. The movie uses comedy to address many dimensions of the African-American experience, including present-day race relations and the intersection of gender and ethnicity. The story unfolds on a fictitious Ivy League campus, becoming the playground for identity politics. The films hallowed-halls address the all-black Mission College in Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”
We attended a screening followed by a discussion with the director at New Directors/New Films (MoMA) this past weekend. “The best way to tackle a very serious issue is through humor so everyone is a part of the party,” Simien said .
The narratives of four characters magnify the dimensions of what it means to “be black,” in what we popularly call post-racial America. The characters grapple with what it means to be a black face while attending a predominantly white institution. Working within the framework of a university allows the characters to examine their racial identity in a very poignant way, as the college campus is a hotbed for the invention of self.
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions have acquired all U.S. and Canadian rights to the film and will distribute it to theaters this fall.

By Priscilla Ward, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Click here to watch the concept trailer if you’re reading on a mobile device

“Sometimes it’s complicated to toggle your blackness,” Simien said. For characters Troy and Coco it’s about dealing with double-consciousness. While for Lionel Higgins its about the outplay of race as well as sexual identity, and for Samantha White its about identifying blackness as being synonymous to power. All of the main characters stir us to dissect the recycled race conversation, the ways in which we poke fun at, are blunt about and mock race.

Over the last couple of years there have been a number of race-mocking frat parties. The film flips the script as a means to stir conversation. A fictitious frat hosts a party mocking the way the media portrays black culture. In this scene, members of the Black Student Union rally together and other minority organizations volunteer to go to bat against the commodification of black culture. This moment displays that it’s much bigger than “acting black,” it’s about dismantling the systemic display of whiteness as power, which rears itself in the entertainment industry as well as in our political and educational systems.

“These white people don’t give a fuck about Harriet Tubman,” said character Coco. When she said this, we leaned in a little bit more in our seats just to make sure they really didn’t go there, but they did. This was a counter statement to the exaggerated assault against black culture. The representation of black identity is type cast, boxed and then solid. So when there is a narrative that is a little bit different, the pause button is pushed and its called “acting white.”

Click here to watch the concept trailer if you’re on a mobile device

Ultimately, the film is one of the most timely movie options for black audiences that don’t involve Tyler Perry’s stereotypical display of blackness. Simien’s movie was successfully crowd-funded on the basis of a charged three-minute trailer.

The film doesn’t present itself as the solutions, but rather as a conversation starter. It comes during a year that brought us “12 Years a Slave,” Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station,” all fact-based dramas that confronted the challenges of being an underprivileged African American throughout U.S. history. The film won the Jury Prize during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and had two sold out screenings during New Directors/New Films this weekend. While Simien couldn’t disclose too much of what’s in store for his next project he said, “I know that it will continue to examine the human condition, from a black perspective.”


* Priscilla Ward is a DC native and microwaved New Yorker. She enjoys keeping an active pulse on the arts, entertainment and cultural scenes of DC, New York and Philadelphia. She also freelances for Brooklyn Exposed and She aspires to one day have her own cartoon. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Macaronifro.