Monday, 7 December 2015

Dear White People (2015) - Movie Review

The plot: Sam (Tessa Thompson), Lionel (Tyler James Williams), Coco (Teyonah Parris) and Troy (Brandon Bell) are all African-American students at the predominantly white Winchester University. Sam’s radio show and independently-published book that look at the racism present at the university, coupled with the actions of white student Kurt (Kyle Gallner), end up raising the racial tensions of the entire campus, leading up to a Halloween party that no-one will soon forget.

Because Barack Obama was elected as President, for some reason people decided that racism was officially over in the United States. It doesn’t even take someone native to the U.S. to see that that is most unfortunately not the case. That feeling of blind tokenism is at the heart of this film’s extremely sharp pen when it comes to race relations. As we watch the imposed isolation of Winchester’s black students, we see that segregation based on society’s labels is alive and well… in more ways than we’re willing to admit. Kurt’s group of white privilege-personified frat boys like to consider themselves as being ‘hip’ because they listen to Public Enemy; in other words, how the world views people like me who carry certain views about being PC.

Now, this film does not excuse their actions and, rightfully so, portrays them as hipster irony-abusing douchebags. Not that they’re racist, though; they have black friends that they barely talk to. To contrast this, we see that the Armstrong-Parker house is more than willing to shun and throw rocks at those same white people, even the ones that haven’t done anything wrong. Not to say that it is any worse than the opposite; just that it acknowledges that, despite what Sam says, black people can be racist too. What makes this work even better is how it pushes the token attitude past race situations and even goes into the area of sexuality as well: Despite their reluctance to accept Lionel's sexuality, they aren’t against gay people; they listen to Frank Ocean.

Aside from tokenism, writer/director Justin Simien examines cultural appropriation as well from three angles concerning African-Americans: White people appropriating black people, black people appropriating white people and black people appropriating themselves. Through Kurt, his crew, the frequent ebonics-laced slanguage utilized by the characters and the frankly unnerving Halloween party they throw, we get a good idea on that first point. Through Troy Fairbanks and how he tweaks his expected racially-driven social tendencies when in the presence of his predominantly-white classmates, we see the second point.

The last one may seem a little off, but it ties back into those expected social behaviours. This time, through Sam and her wanting to address problems on campus. Now, don’t get me wrong, Sam brings up some very good points when it comes to the attitudes of not just the campus but of society as a whole. However, her mindset is born from a want to be proud of who she is without completely understanding what that is exactly. As such, she ends up borrowing from past militant black leaders to help her shape her own actions, sometimes even without understanding what those actions lead to. After all, this is the person who used an election for Head of House as a platform to push her agenda, but then wasn’t able to act when she actually won that election.

Through the combination of these three perspectives, it essentially leads to what is a rather basic conclusion but still one that should be addressed: Race shouldn’t be the defining factor. It shouldn’t be the one and only reason why people choose to act or not act, nor should it be the only thing that defines a person. When Lionel and Troy make a connection in a small scene, it’s not out of their shared heritage or understanding of their respective sexualities; it’s because they both love Star Trek.

All in all, considering all that has happened in recent years, racial tensions on a college campus and facetious arguments about suppressing freedom of speech may not seem like that much in the grand scheme of things. But it is during these moments that mentalities are forged that create life-long perspectives of the world. The road to violence is paved with jocular intentions, and seemingly harmless bits of jokey racism can lead to larger acts. In that way, this is an amazingly well done look at racial politics and, while addressing that no one side comes out entirely clean, shows that there are times when the ‘joking’ goes way too far. I’m in no way against edgier comedy that involves racial humour, but there are still lines that aren’t meant to be crossed. This isn’t political correctness gone mad; this legitimately is an issue of people not showing respect for other people.

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