Oct 27, 2014

Dear White People

Director Justin Simien's awkward satire promises far more than it delivers, although it does pack a punch of provocative racial invective. Some of it is funny, but in general the script could have benefited from extensive polishing. I admire the gumption behind the idea of making a comedy that exposes racist attitudes in American colleges, based on actual offensive parties that have sprung in several campuses recently, but the execution is underbaked. Just because characters sling shocking racial accusations at each other, it doesn't mean that the artistic merit is as high as their shock value.
Simien has a bizarre sense of comic timing (barely any at all) that smothers any hint of comedic buoyancy. He is tonally awkward. Most scenes are underwritten and go nowhere. Characters take forever to deliver their punchlines. The actors, although capable, are not inherently comedic performers. Simien's stylistic choices are also wrong for the material: polished cinematography which looks like a decently lit TV show, with no expressive edge.
The tone hovers between dry satire and almost melodrama. The characters are thinly sketched, and for the most part, badly cast. The heroine, a lovely girl called Sam (Tessa Thompson), has a college radio show in which she berates white people for being white, as in: "Dear white people: stop dancing". But as written and acted, Sam has not a funny bone in her body. She is self-righteous, which in the hands of inspired comedians can be hilarious (think of Will Ferrell's persona, always so sure he is right, when in fact he's totally clueless). Sam is just self-righteous, and she is pissed off, and though there is nothing wrong with righteous anger, for it to be funny, it should be tempered with something absurd to undercut it, or at the very least with comic verve (Spike Lee was self-righteous and angry, but he could be funny. Also, Richard Pryor).
I don't think it is the actors' fault, but rather the result of immature script and directorial choices which strand the actors in stereotypes. Sam is of mixed race but this is not really contrast, because it is the result of circumstance, not of personality. Most black characters are stereotypes with a circumstantial conflict: the son of the college's black dean is a white wannabe (an oreo, is it?), who is ambitious and handsome, but he smokes pot in hiding. The educated black girl who refuses to be ghetto, but will outghetto herself in order to give the people what they want. A black gay nerd, played by Tyler James Williams, is the only character who is interesting to watch, even if he seems to have flown in from a different movie.
The white characters are all one dimensional stereotypes. There is no attempt to render them any differently. Perhaps this is on purpose. Imagine how black people feel at looking at themselves in the media through a limited amount of types from central casting. White people who complain that this movie is racist against them are missing the point. For one, the black characters viciously stereotype each other, just to add salt to the wound of ingrained bad cultural habits. Two, I never understand when whites whine about black racism. How could black Americans not be racist?
Simien completely avoids the representations of blacks we are used to seeing in pop culture. Quite deliberately, he avoids sassy fat mamas, twerking hoes, hooded drug dealers, the motley crew of black "characters" that permeate our media. In fact, this is the most radical thing about this movie: it forces us to see these educated, ambitious middle class black kids as the norm, not as aliens from a fictional planet, or as politically correct wishful thinking. It also points out how even within black culture certain characters are off limits, like the gay black nerd. This is shocking: to realize the dearth of fully composed black characters in our culture, to realize that we are still being fed a bunch of stereotypes, perhaps softened from the days of blackface, but which still do not represent the diversity of blacks in America, often with the collusion of black people themselves. Simien introduces two different mixed race couples. We rarely see people like them on TV or film, laying waste to the idea that this is not normal simply by cuddling, even when they relate to each other in terms of race. They have more of an impact than all the verbal race baiting.

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