Satire is the weapon of reason.
Dear White People is the first feature film from writer/director Justin Simien. Funded partially by Indiegogo, the film was released in the States on Oct. 17th, but only made it to Vancouver, Canada last Friday. If you haven’t been following my myriad anticipatory tweets, please click here to watch the trailer.
Set at the fictional Winchester University, Dear White People follows four college students as they navigate life as a ‘black face in a white place.’ Two men. Two women. Three straight. One gay. The boxes are ticked, but the characters never feel as if they were created to take a side. Each one is a nuanced, dynamic individual with his or her own opinions, motivations, and struggles.
I’ll get into race in a minute, but first let’s get one thing clear: Dear White People is a fantastic movie.
It would undermine Simien’s acerbic, modern, and hilarious script to talk about the “issues” first. Yes, Dear White People is a satire about race… on the surface. But that’s not what the film is really about. It’s actually a coming of age film about four people — kids, essentially — in their early twenties, trying to figure out who they are. Simien does not judge their actions or frame them so the audience has to choose a side; he makes sure that their insecurities (and supervening actions) come from an authentic place. His dialogue is brilliant, fast paced, and, dare I say, hip? For lack of a better term, what I mean is, Simien captures how Gen Y speaks, and what about, but makes it film-worthy i.e. funnier, more intelligent, and just as self-serving. It’s also beautifully shot (with an opening that would make Wes Anderson proud), impeccably scored, and wonderfully acted (What up, Veronica Mars alumnus!). Also, big kudos to the wardrobe and hair & makeup folks; I covet everything Sam wore.
But, ultimately, what makes this film so important — and what makes it a social satire — is that while navigating their collegiate lives and trying to figure out what kind of people they’re going to be, the colour of our leads’ skin defines their journey. But it shouldn’t. And that’s the point.
White privilege — like feminism and other hot button words — seems to mean different things to different people. (In the new times that are the wild west of the world wide web, a division of language is a terrifying thing), but I’ll push that thought aside for now and explain the meaning of what, I’ve come to understand, is ‘white privilege.’
Beyond being treated differently (based on the colour of your skin), white privilege is the inability to comprehend what someone who is not you, who is not white, is going through, has gone through, and will continue to go through in their every day lives.
This privilege can also extend to wealth, sexual orientation, nationality, and gender. I, personally, only recently came to understand the need to stand up for feminism because of my own Canadian privilege — growing up in a very lovely bubble where I wasn’t treated differently for being a girl. Yes, I’m still unpacking all the various, often invisible ways I’ve been affected by misogyny but growing up in this country, in this time, with this body has given me an easy path.
What I’m trying to say is, while Lionel, Sam, Troy, and Coco are simply trying to figure out their own identities, society (Winchester College, their peers, their parents, the media) expect them to dictate themselves through their race. While in Canada* many of us look around and shake our heads, understanding that race doesn’t define a person, these stereotypes, these assumptions, these beliefs (about race, gender, sexuality) are so prevalent the world over that this conversation is not even close to being over.
*Canada is not perfect. We have A LOT to work on, but it’s not black vs. white up here (which is what the States appears to be, or at least us vs. them — ‘us’ being white people and ‘them’ being everyone else. (To which I say, your country was built on immigration, get with the fucking program. And, also, all humans are equal. Duh.))
Dear White People is important for two big reasons:
- It’s a fantastic coming of age independent feature written and directed by a promising new talent. Justin Simien wrote this script, shot a trailer for $2,000, brought it to Indiegogo (raising $40,ooo), garnered enough attention to attach an independent producer, directed it for waaay under a million dollars, got it into Sundance and across the world. Now that’s impressive. The film navigates its four different leads’ story with grace, charm, and wit. Not to mention it’s really fucking entertaining.
- It asks us to question what we know, what we believe to be true. It asks us not to define people by the way they look. It questions ‘post-racial America’ and (hopefully) demands of us to continue examining this issue instead of passively shrugging that ‘it’s over.’
There are so many more things to talk about here. There is so much turmoil in the States (and the rest of the world). There is so far to go in the entertainment industry. Chris Rock’s recent essay reminds us how ‘white’ the industry is. An industry that acts as society’s mirror, showing us who people are, what to believe and how to act. This is a conversation we need to continue to have.
Just go see the movie because it’s really good. It’s an independent feat and an impressive debut. Then, if you take something more from it, great. Remember, while society tries — and sometimes succeeds — in dictating the lives of the characters in the film Dear White People, in reality it also dictates our beliefs (often without our knowledge). Racism is learned and taught. And film & television often replicate these learned bad behaviours… especially the most subtle, insidious ones. This place that we call home isn’t quite as post-racial/sexist/homophobic as we like to believe it is. And if a smart, funny, sweet film can make us a little more aware of that, then it’s a good place to start.