Commentary: Dear White and Black People, Go See This Movie

Keith Boykin

Commentary: Dear White and Black People, Go See This Movie

Dear White People offers a nuanced look at identity and culture in America.

UPDATED ON : OCTOBER 17, 2014 / 12:10 PM

White privilege doesn't exist anymore. "That was then. This is now," says the character on the screen. "There is no more slavery. No more Jim Crow. The most powerful man in the world is a Black American. And the most powerful woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey, is Black."

No, that's not a scene from the new film Dear White People, that's a quote from white America's favorite TV host, Bill O'Reilly, when he appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart this week.

The O'Reilly interview aired just a few hours after a special New York City screening on Wednesday of Dear White People, a new satire about Black students at an elite white college. Just like O'Reilly, the president of the fictitious Winchester College (played by actor Peter Syvertsen) does not believe in white privilege. "Racism is over in America," he tells a Black dean, even though the dean outperformed him when they were college classmates but ends up working for him in real life.

Ripped from the headlines, director Justin Simien's new film is more than a farcical look at racism in America. It's a meditation on culture and identity in a world complicated by the intersection of once segregated groups.

When a humor magazine run by the college president's son throws an offensive Black-themed Halloween party, white guests arrive in thugged-out rapper costumes and blackface-wearing stereotypes, seemingly oblivious to the problematic nature of their event. It almost doesn't matter that the theme and the invitation for the party weren't entirely hatched by white people.

Dear White People goes beyond Spike Lee's 1988 classic School Daze and John Singleton's 1995 film Higher Learning by presenting a current, nuanced look at identity that no longer simply pits Black against white but instead reveals the growing intersection of our cultures, where pro-Black activists date white partners and listen to rock music and ostensibly insensitive white men rock out to hip hop and rap.

The film's plot lines are purposefully contrived, but the two central Black characters are more than the stereotypes they appear to be. They're anti-stereotypes who personify the complex world of interracial relationships and complicated identity.

No character is more complicated than the ironically named Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), the beautiful, incredibly busy, radical, light-skinned Black woman who, while attending college, has time to host a radio program called "Dear White People," publish a chapbook called Ebony and Ivy, and produce racially provocative art for her film class. And, by the way, she loves Taylor Swift and is secretly dating a white guy who calls her a "tragic mulatto."

One angry white student describes Samantha as "if Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed-off baby." But Samantha is responsible for some of the movie's wittiest lines. "Dear White People, stop dancing," she says. And "the minimum requirement of Black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two."

The unlikely hero of the film may be Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris), the nonconforming Black gay geek with a big Afro who listens to Mumford and Sons and likes Robert Altman movies. His move from the white residence hall to the Black one reflects his own evolution in his sense of cultural awareness. He also develops an unexpected friendship with Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), a handsome, privileged Black guy who sleeps with a Black woman but is officially dating a white woman.

The blackface party provides the climax for a series of dramatic confrontations but also exposes one of the fundamental ironies in modern racism, that white Americans spend millions of dollars for big lips, dark tans, and even Jay Z tickets as part of the commodification of the Black experience.

It's at the party that Colandrea 'Coco' Conners (Teyonah Parris), a dark-skinned Black woman who despises Samantha as a "bougie Lisa Bonet wannabe," boasts openly that white people "want to be like us." That is, with one caveat, as writer Greg Tate noted 10 years ago, they want "everything but the burden."

African-American popular culture and thinking do not escape director Simien's microscope. He questions our tipping etiquette at restaurants and takes aim at Tyler Perry movies, Madea, and even Big Momma's House. ("Can we have a movie with characters in it instead of stereotypes wrapped in Christian dogma?" Samantha asks.) And the film depicts a sexually and politically aware Black gay man, not on the overhyped "down low," who kisses another man more than once during the film. Some Black filmgoers in the sophisticated New York City screening audience cringed at the kissing scenes. (Oh, my people!)

The themes in Dear White People couldn't be more timely, as the country wrestles with the contrast between deteriorating race relations in the streets of Ferguson and the expansion of gay marriage in other parts of the country. It's an important movie that deserves the widest possible audience.

"The role of counterculture is to wake up the mainstream," Samantha tells Dean Fairbanks in one confrontational scene. That's a familiar theme from Spike Lee's School Daze, which ended with a warning to Black people to "wake up," and the sound of an alarm clock. Twenty-six years later, Dear White People may be a wake-up call for a new generation of Americans. 

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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