“Dear White People” a provocative, nuanced, empathetic look at race issues

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By Phil Brown, Contributor

“Black people can’t be racist,” claims Sam White in the trailer for “Dear White People.” Tessa Thompson’s portrayal of the militant student leader, and host of titular radio program, is immediately provocative. It sets up a certain expectation of what the character is about, what matters to her and what she wishes to accomplish in the story. To the White People the movie’s title addresses, it’s easy to see Sam as an antagonist: an angry, self-righteous character who prescribes upon her audience. 

It was with such a first impression that I ventured out to see Justin Simien’s debut feature, but fears that this film would be a heavy-handed, one-sided, sanctimonious affair were thankfully unfounded. 

The film is designed to provoke, and the character of Sam is all about provocation. Sam may be the driving force behind the events of the film, she may be the instigator, but the film is less concerned with who started what, and more interested in what happens next. Indeed, the setting of the film places itself right in the middle of the lives of the students it’s concerned with, just as the larger context takes place in the middle of a president’s two terms, and the middle of a decade. It’s a great choice, as the film attempts to show us, or rather to make us consider, where we are right now.

Where We Are Right Now isn’t a concrete place, and it won’t be the same for everyone. Simien’s film doesn’t insult by offering a single conclusion or viewpoint. 

The film is beautifully nuanced. It follows four main characters: Thompson’s aforementioned Sam, Teyonah Parris’ (Mad Men) Coco, Brandon P. Bell’s Troy, and Tyler James Williams’ (Everyone Hates Chris) Lionel. Each of these characters relates to their race in a different way: Sam is militant, trying to assert herself; Troy is the jock, trying to prove himself; Coco is the diva, trying to assimilate; and Lionel is unsure of what he is and is just trying to find out. 

The film isn’t satisfied with these surfaces. Each character is broken down over the course of the film, the cookie-cutter categories established in the opening minutes begin to melt, and the result is really great. 

It often seems that we live in an oddly bifurcated era. An era in which awareness is higher than ever, but change just as low, an era that has seen great leaps of advancement, but is held back by old problems. Our era is often defined more by gaps, gulfs and divides more than bridges and ladders. When it comes to race, America seems hyper-aware of issues but still ignorant of their meaning or impact.

As a white male, I will never know how it feels to be marginalized. I’m a benefactor of what is undeniably white privilege. There has never been a time that I have been made to feel uncomfortable or incongruous because of who I am in that regard, and that separates me by experience from many other human beings, human beings with valuable stories to tell, works of art that need audiences, views that need to be seen. Empathy bridges gaps between experiences, and it’s empathy that is “Dear White People”’s greatest gift as a film, and Simien’s, Thompson’s, Parris’, Bell’s and Williams’ gifts as filmmakers. 

As a result of this film, I am forced to reevaluate my responses and reactions to it. Many parts of the film hit dangerously close to home, as I am a big fan of hip-hop and satirical, “edgy” humor. I know that I’ve said and texted things remarkably close to the things said by similarly clueless arrogant white men in the film, and that my undying hatred of Iggy Azalea doesn’t quite make up for it. What I haven’t really experienced before is the other side of the story.

“Dear White People” is all about empathy. The titular White People are given an opportunity to experience something through the lense of another, and are largely left to their own conclusions. The four central characters are all shown as deeply nuanced within the confines they’ve drawn up for themselves and the confines placed upon them by society. They are three-dimensional, they are neither heroes nor villains and the film doesn’t force-feed a “message” to the viewers. It is content to let the story unfold in front of them, and gives them realistic, relatable characters they can empathize with. 

The viewer is made responsible for how he reacts to the characters, the conclusion he draws, the actions he takes. The message of the film is found by the viewer, not told by the maker. Simien and his team of actors are largely successful at this, and as such establish themselves as a very important voice in modern cinema, and “Dear White People” as an unmissable experience.

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