Delayed Thanksgiving week arthouse binge part 5: Dear White People

Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) refers to his hair as a black hole for white people’s fingers. Higgins is supposedly an author avatar for writer/director Justin Simien. Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions.

In January, Paramount Pictures publicity coordinator Justin Simien entered his racial satire Dear White People into Sundance, coming away with the Breakthrough Talent Award. In October, the film starts releasing across the U.S. to critical acclaim.

In November, two grand juries in different parts of the country announced that two police officers who killed black men they were trying to arrest for barely ticketable offenses would not even be tried, despite multiple eyewitness accounts and, in one case, video evidence of the incident. These decisions have led to widespread sometimes violent protests and demand for police reform across the country.

Dear White People is a comedy about the new face of racism in the U.S., but that face has rapidly regressed to its old, violent self since the movie’s release, and it’s suddenly unclear whether the subject is funny anymore.

The movie is titled after Sam White’s (Tessa Thompson) radio show addressing white students at Winchester College, a fictional Ivy League school, commenting on and correcting their behavior toward black classmates. Inflammatory among students of all races, White is surprisingly elected president of the black residence hall ahead of much more popular Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell). Fairbanks is the son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert), and is himself wielded by his father in a mostly off-screen power struggle with university president Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen), whose son (Kyle Gallner) and daughter (Brittany Curran) both have racially charged interactions with Troy Fairbanks.

Bi-racial but identifying as black and dramatically overcompensating, White is torn between her role in representing black students, whose on-campus culture she believes is about to be annihilated by the university blending the dorms, and her growing desire to not be a firebrand who relates every little interaction back to race relations.

The black, gay Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) eventually emerges as the main character in this bargello of storylines, which culminates in a small riot over a blackface-themed Halloween party.

Dear White People is funny. It’s hilarious. It’s a comedy of errors and miscommunication regarding a topic most people are simply afraid to address.

Legally enforced segregation ended in the 1960s, but, for some reason, races still mostly refuse to mix. From school yard to prison yard, this remains true. One reason for this could be class divides, which are closely tied to race, but there don’t seem to be any formal studies about it.

What it’s created is a generation of casual racism – people for whom racial hatred wasn’t necessarily ingrained through law or parenting, but who developed a disregard for people of other races simply because they’d never hung out with any of them, people for whom African-American culture truly is a joke because they’ve never really been exposed to it or had any reason to pay attention to it.

This is the culture Dear White People captures, simplifies and presents. There are no racists here, not like the imbecilic antagonists in Civil Rights era movies or the sadists in slave films. There’s only Kurt Fletcher (Gallner), who has made no effort to understand black culture but is tired of dealing with the perception of racism, which is clearly dead because of Obama. On the other side, there are White and Reggie (Marque Richardson), who force that culture and historic attacks on it to the forefront even when it isn’t appropriate. The film does a good job of not painting them as angels, or even particularly reasonable people, either.

It’s a complex film and a rare one that truly achieves its lofty goal of portraying its characters as human beings while also capturing the cages society tries to put them in because of race.

It was hilarious in early November. It’s difficult to say whether or not it is still.

The deaths of black men in scuffles with law enforcement and would-be vigilantes have become higher and higher profile in recent years, but the problem isn’t a new one. I’d say anything that makes fun of it isn’t funny anymore, but the reality is the world hasn’t changed since Trayvon Martin and more recent killings – a centuries-old problem is simply being highlighted. It depends on whether a viewer separates the casual racism of social interactions with someone of another color depicted in the film from America’s disturbing history of violence toward minorities.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. Hard drive crashes are the worst. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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