Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 6; Sex 7/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
…and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Acts 10:28, 34-35
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold…
Director/screenwriter Justin Simien’s satire is pretty strong medicine for the patient known as America, but I wish that it could be administered to those on the U.S. Supreme Court who agreed with the following statement when they struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The white President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen) of fictional Winchester University says to the black Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), “Racism is over in America. The only people thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” Events unfolding on his campus will soon prove this quite a bit premature.
Director/writer Justin Simien’s film seems directed at two major groups of Americans, white liberals such as myself who like to think of ourselves as beyond racism, but who around African Americans seem to be trying too hard to prove it; and blacks filled with contradictions, in that they both want to fit in and yet also to smash a system that, despite its claims of “tolerance,” still favors whites over people of color. There is, of course, a third group, the old guard still convinced that blacks are inferior—during the last two presidential elections some of them held aloft placards with pictures of Obama that made him monkey-like–but they won’t come within a mile of the film
At the film’s Ivy League school black students certainly do not feel they are living in a post-racial society, having set up their own residences and cafeteria at Armstrong/Parker Hall. Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a biracial media arts student enjoys stirring up listeners to her radio show, Dear White People, calling into question people’s assumptions and practices. Examples of this are, “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two,” and, “Dear white people, dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” In her film class she spoofs the racist Birth of a Nation by filming actors in white face. She also opposes the school’s new policy of randomly assigning roommates regardless of their color. She fears that in an integrated Armstrong/Parker Hall African Americans will become a minority and become as marginalized as they are elsewhere on the campus.
The film focuses on Sam and three other characters—the intellectual Lionel (Tyler James Williams); Big Man on Campus Troy (Brandon P. Bell), son of the Dean; and Coco (Teyonah Parris), with little interest in campus racial politics but intensely jealous of Sam and her following. She uses her YouTube rants to put down her rival.
Lionel, a sci-fi fan with a bushy Afro growing in all directions, is especially an outsider because he is gay. He is pushed around by three groups: the staff of the campus humor magazine headed by Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who is the son of the University’s president. Kurt wants to stir things up, and the article Lionel on campus race relations and Samantha in particular he promises to write will do just that. Lionel’s white housemates are happy neither with his gayness nor his race. Nor do his fellow blacks find him acceptable due to his gender preference.
Though racism exists just below the surface of campus life, there is considerable racial dating. Sam and Troy have broken up, Sam now secretly dating white student Mitch (Keith Myers). Dating a white would fly against her public persona, hence keeping the relationship under wraps. Troy is going with white girlfriend Sophie (Brittany Curran), the daughter of the University’s president. The ambitious Troy wants to fit into both worlds, so he and Sam find themselves running against each other for leadership of Armstrong/Parker Hall, as well as on opposite sides of the university’s open dorm policy.
Matters climax when Kurt and his magazine staff sponsor a Halloween bash to “Unleash Your Inner Negro.” Participants don Obama masks, pink wigs, black face makeup, and sport wooden gangsta guns. Kurt is too insensitive to think that the black face make-up might be offensive to some. It is the kind of controversial event dear to the heart of Helmut (Malcolm Barret), a reality-TV producer lurking around the campus so he can sign up students for his upcoming show “Black Face/White Place.” (Coco is one who hopes to be selected).
The film is so crammed with characters, clever quips, and story lines that I was confused at times—but never bored! Justin Simien clearly is indebted to earlier filmmaker Spike Lee, especially the latter’s campus film School Daze and, by the way the racist Halloween party ends, to Do the Right Thing. He also seems a bit cynical, judging by the last scene in which TV producer Helmet dangles the specter of money before the university’s dean and president in order to elicit their cooperation with his reality show. The film’s quips make us laugh, and then when we (I’m thinking of white viewers here) think about them, there is a bit of pain because we see ourselves skewered.
Virtually any group would benefit from watching and discussing this challenging film, but what an opportunity for a mixed race group whose members would commit to an honest exchange of views, rather than seeking to feel good about their tolerance and so-called color blindness. It is so good to be able to add Justin Simien’s name to the list of black directors (Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes brothers, Antoine Fuqua, and yes, Tyler Perry). Like his colleagues, Simien challenges viewers to take a fresh look at society and ourselves, his role very similar to that of the prophet in Israel and the early church.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.