The 2008 election of Barack Obama ushered in a rash of declarations about the dawn of a post-racial America. But by the time he took the oath of office, it was already becoming clear to many African-Americans that Obama's presidency was giving some white people a new conduit to express deep-seated prejudices they had previously only dared utter in private.
Black Americans often found themselves blindsided by the reality that one of their own had ascended to the most powerful perch in the world, and yet he would be forced to endure the same indignities that people of color had been subjected to for generations.
The critically acclaimed new satire, “Dear White People”, which opened on Friday, at its best tries to capture this new normal when it comes to race. The racial anxieties of the Obama era are given ample screen time, and the film tackles an age-old question that has been at the center of black narratives from W.E.B. DuBois' “The Souls of Black Folk” to Barack Obama's best-selling memoir “Dreams From My Father”: where do African-Americans belong within the social fabric of this country?
The film's 31-year-old writer-director, Justin Simien, said during a panel discussion at New York City's SoHo Apple Store on Wednesday that he was attempting to portray a black experience that "was nowhere to be found in cinema." His goal was to simulate what it feels like to be a "black person in a predominately white space … what being a person of color looks like now." Drawing inspiration from films as diverse as “Network” and “School Daze”, Simien is swinging for the fences with this movie. Does he hit a home run? No, but it's a solid single.
“Dear White People” takes place at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University. The racial and social groups on campus are clearly defined from the very beginning, with a well-edited opening montage that introduces the main characters through mocking title cards – the movie nails millennials' insistence on categorizing everything and everyone. Racial tensions at the school are already hot and the temperature’s rising, thanks to a provocative radio broadcast, which shares the movie’s title, led by the leading black radical on campus, Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson).
Samantha uses her show as a cudgel, ridiculing whites for appropriating black culture or simply not respecting it. Her racial put-downs (for instance, she calls dating a black man to infuriate your parents a "form of racism") ignite a campus-wide competition involving elite "houses" which conspire to get the best of each other in an exaggerated turf war.
Samantha is “like Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey had some pissed off baby,” according to her white peers, and she revels in her combative posture, even making a film called “Rebirth of a Nation” featuring white people in whiter face reacting hysterically to Obama’s two presidential victories. She is “Dear White People”’s ostensible lead, but the most compelling figure is actually a socially awkward gay black student writer named Lionel, played by “Everybody Hates Chris” veteran, Tyler James Williams.
Lionel suffers from not being “black enough for the black kids or being black enough for the white ones." He listens to Mumford & Sons and appreciates Robert Altman movies and yet his copious Afro is an endless curiosity for his condescending white friends.
Williams's performance and character are the film’s strongest because they feel the realest, and therefore, the most relevant. The figure of Lionel taps into our country’s evolving concepts of racial identity, which have blurred and become more nuanced since a "skinny kid with a funny name" was elected Commander-in-Chief.
This changing racial landscape comes with a great deal of fear and apprehension. It’s therefore no surprise that so-called “black films” rarely venture into modern territory for this very reason. The most popular mainstream Hollywood films about race are almost always set in the past. In films like “The Butler” for instance, the good guys and bad guys are very clearly delineated and the events portrayed are so far removed from our current climate, that they can be viewed from a safe, cozy distance.
“Dear White People” avoids this pitfall. The director has taken on the thorny issue of race and has attempted to make a poignant and provocative case study of the times in which we currently live. His script gets some good topical digs in on Tyler Perry, reality TV shows, and most effectively, racist-themed Halloween parties, which the end credits demonstrate are alive and well in the U.S. Unfortunately, the film frequently doesn’t play to its strengths enough (its sense of humor) and lapses into some overripe melodrama and occasionally cringe-inducing dialogue (Thompson’s character is told she’s “more Banksy than Barack”).
There is an Obama-like character who has political aspirations and a penchant for smoking pot, but he winds up the with the least satisfying storyline and never seems to become more than a type. Thompson fares better with her overwritten role, and she gets some of the movie's best zingers.
But Simien isn’t looking just to make audiences laugh, he wants to provoke a discussion between whites and blacks. That may happen in a more productive way among the film’s viewers than its characters, since the movie’s whites are woefully under-drawn paper tigers. Still, even if Simien hasn’t made the definitive document of the Obama era, he has certainly struck some of the right notes.
Keep in mind, this is an extremely ambitious project for a relatively young first-time filmmaker. The ink is not yet dry on the Obama legacy, which contrary to some pundit's opinions is far from cemented. The president is only 53 years old, which means, most likely, he will remain a fixture in American public life for several more decades. The country he has helped shape will continue to come of age and only time will tell his long term impact on race relations. It will be a brave new world for a black ex-president.
In the meantime, we have Simien's earnest opening salvo in the effort to comes to grips with this at-times inspirational, and yet also frequently hurtful era. The movie itself may not be a masterpiece, but the media-savvy Simien has definitely jump-started a national conversation, which is part of why the film has been a popular meme on both broadcast and social media.
And while Simien has presented an affable face to the public, his film is not to meant to be just a lark. This is why the scenes of blackface-wearing white revelers at a racist-themed Halloween party during the film's denouement are so unsettling. One of the part-goers wears an Obama mask, an image we've seen hung in effigy and used as fodder for rodeo clowns. The image is a stark reminder that racism isn’t “over” in America, contrary to what one of the characters in the film says, and until we start confronting that reality head-on, it never will be.