Dear White People is not a film for white people.
I thought that was clear before the film even debuted in theaters on Friday October 24, but it became crystal as I watched it that Sunday.
Now, how could I possibly think this film titled “Dear White People” to be directed at anyone else besides white people?
Great question! I can think this because of just three very important points:
1. There is NO explanation for the racial tension on campus, or the terms themselves such as racism, colorism, cultural appropriation, fetishization, respectability, etc.
2. There is NO closure, solution, answer, or plan to move race relations forward.
3. There is NO moment of explicit, all inclusive, open black solidarity.
If Dear White People were a film for white people, all of the NOs mentioned would be crossed out.
I’ve been excited for this film for months now, and while I was already wary of the critiques it would surely receive, I didn’t expect to hear these critiques from black people themselves. But I am hearing them, and unfortunately friends are starting to say that they don’t plan on watching the film based on these three critiques.
I am speaking to those friends and all other people of color who are on the fence or refuse to see Dear White People because of any combination of these critiques.
First, even if topics of racism make you uncomfortable or get your blood boiling, the entire cast is hella attractive. Everybody. Even the extras in the crew are gorgeous. Just go see the film to drool over all the skin, hair, and lips.
Second, I still want you to see this film for more than just pretty faces which means I need you to understand what this film does not intend to do for the audience.
1. NO EXPLANATIONS
Haven’t we been yelling about not having to explain ourselves since forever now?
Let me yell about it one more time then:
People of color DO NOT have to EVER explain themselves. That includes their experiences.
Just because a black director decides to make a film about his experiences as a black student on a white campus doesn’t mean he has to explain what is happening.
(One can go further to say that a director can have any kind of intention he/she/they want and can target whatever kind of audience he/she/they want, or decide to not even target an audience at all. Hooray art!)
When I go about my day as a black woman and experience racism, the white professor who mistakes me for another woman of color in class doesn’t say:
“Oh yeah! Not Paula, Olivia! See, Paula is the only other brown girl in this class so I think of you two as interchangeable. I just can’t tell you two apart. This is an example of a microagression.”
No. The white professor would simply say “Oh yeah! Not Paula, Olivia!”.
I clearly know what happened, and so would other poc that I shared the story with. Would a white person understand? Probably not. Do I have to spell it all out? Not if I don’t want to.
Clearly Justin Simien, director, did not want to (or care about) explaining the acts of racism on this fictional campus. Or, you know, the reality is that acts of racism on campuses are not explained, and staying true to that, Simien refused to explain these actions.
Really think about this critique. Would you be able to truly relax and immerse yourself into a film that took breaks every 30 seconds to explain why an action that took place was racist?
Wouldn’t your eyes pop out of your skull from rolling them so hard at the moment that the white woman was fingers deep into Lionel’s (Tyler James Williams) hair and Lionel turns to the camera to say “Her act is not only an invasion of privacy, it is an act of racism. Black people have a history of their bodies being on display, not just through slavery but in circuses and human zoos. Her petting is demeaning and making me feel more like an animal than a human. I am human and my hair is normal, not an oddity.”
Oh right! That actually would be extremely helpful for the white viewer!
But this film is not created for the white viewer.
I’m well aware that many white people have no concept or correct definition of racism and relative hairy terms, but that doesn’t mean we have to raise all this money and spend all this time just to spoon feed a term that can be typed into Google’s search engine within seconds – for free. Then type the term into YouTube’s search engine to see it in action – for free.
2. NO SOLUTION
So tell me then, what is the solution for racism?
Quickly now! Tell me in 5 minutes of screen time or less!
This is the dumbest critique of the film by far.
I’m pessimistic by default, but I do have hope that racism, as a system, will one day be demolished. I can speak on different things that could help get us on track to recovery (especially within America), but in no way are they solutions.
There is no bottled up, easy dosage cure for racism, so why do you expect this film to have one?
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the ending is very realistic but no less entertaining, shocking, and brilliant. If you like films that take you to alternate universes in which all questions are answered, problems are solved, and all pain ceased by the final scene – do not see this film.
The ending stays true to the atmosphere of the rest of the film – honest. The honest answer is, there is no answer.
3. NO BLACK SOLIDARITY
This is where I say that there is all inclusive black solidarity within the film, but I admit it’s only for one scene and while that scene creates a ripple effect for the characters, it doesn’t promote any long-lasting cohesiveness.
Unfortunately, this is another honest component of the film. Black life is lived in infinite ways, and while our experiences – fears and trials – are similar, how we deal – respond, process, and learn – with these experiences differ greatly.
This is one of the most beautiful things about black people.
We share the same heavy history, the same fears, the same struggle, and yet we remain diverse.
Black people are complex, multidimensional, and contradictory beings – naturally.
There is nothing natural (or entertaining) about a “Black Perfect” image in which all black characters are well-rounded, balanced, and unanimous on the screen. And it’s nothing to aspire to in real life either.
A point that comes across in the film (it also comes across in every intellectual discussion about race and the black diaspora) is that there is no right way to be black, and blackness itself cannot be confined to a short bulleted list of clothes, music, and lingo. Blackness is both what black people create and what is given to black people. Blackness is both how black people see themselves and how others project ideas onto black bodies. Blackness – like black people – is a complex, multidimensional, contradictory thing. And that’s natural.
When you go see this film (and I do hope that you go see this film), keep in mind that these critiques are not fair expectations. Also keep in mind that this is a film. It has the potential to do much more than provide entertainment, as all good art does, but that is not a film’s job.
What you should keep in mind instead is just how important this film is as a project. Very few times this year have you had the opportunity to see a film written, directed, and acted by (and for) black people. Again, just because its creators are black does not mean that the film should then be “Black Perfect”. They don’t have to explain, solve, or even make sense to anyone.
I’m angry because these expectations are never held for white male directors. They are allowed to make art that is separated from their person. Any messed up worlds with messed up characters they create is just seen as good writing. Why is Simien any different?
Because he has a responsibility?
Black beings do not come into this world owing a debt. Black beings do not have to prove their life valuable or their experiences valid.
I understand why we generally have higher expectations for other black people (and poc largely) but that doesn’t mean that high bar is fair. Race is a construct that has real, very intense effects – but race is not natural. We are individual human beings naturally, but this real construct has bound us together.
No, this is not one of those color-blind, postracial bull sh*t arguments. I just say this to explain why black people can be varied and one-in-the-same simultaneously. It’s just another complexity in life that poc have to deal with, recognizing who we are in the macro and micro.
It’s contradictory, just like us.
The scariest part of these critics is that they make me wonder: if you can watch this film and see unrealistic depictions of black life, then just how do you see race?
How do you see race?
How do you perceive issues of race?
How do you read the experiences of black people? Yourself included as black or a poc?
What if you’re white?
Go see the film, too. Then go do your homework. Then listen.