Saturday, November 22, 2014

Race Relations

Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams in Dear White People

Dear White People (2014, directed by Justin Simien) is a portrait of entitlement and privilege as satire and farce. That it's set at an Ivy League school where privilege and entitlement are incubated is right and proper, because this isn't a film where the obvious oppression of economic iniquity fits in. That's a fish in a barrel, one that would lend itself more to a polemic than to a wry satire. Instead, this aims at less obvious, though no less pernicious targets, including a deconstruction of the sometimes rigid expectations of black identity.

In synopsis: Sam White is ruffling feathers at stuffy, whitebread Winchester University with her satirical student radio show, "Dear White People," in which she schools her fellow (white and black) students in the delicacies of race relations. Her show makes the administration uncomfortable because they think it might scare off donors. It makes Dean Fairbanks uncomfortable because, as the school's first black dean, his position is precarious as he toes the line between being an example for the black students on the one hand, and being being the good Uncle Tom for the board of curators. The white students resent it because they perceive it as a threat to their privilege--particularly their entitlement to express racist thoughts. It makes the black students uncomfortable because it paints a target on them. Indeed, some of them resent Sam for speaking for them as if a black identity is monolithic. Among those who resent her are Coco Connors, who aspires to a kind of WASP-y affluence and privilege through her education. She's a social climber, obsessed with her profile on social media. She responds to Sam through YouTube and courts a reality show producer who wants to make a show about black people in a very white space. Sam also rankles Troy Fairbanks, the Dean's son, who finds his own power and position among the black students threatened by Sam's activism, particularly once she wins an election to replace Troy as head of the black residence house. Some of Sam's friends, don't think she goes far enough with her activism, and want to use the popularity of her show to advance their own agenda. And her show really nettles Kurt Fletcher, head of the snobby, elite dudebro Lampoon knock off, Pastiche. Fletcher is also the son of the college president, and his sister is dating Troy Fairbanks, so his own relationship with race is already complicated. He view's Sam's assertion of grievances as "reverse racism," particularly after he and his cronies are chased out of Sam's residence hall. Sam's election to head of her hall on a platform of stopping its disintegration as an all-black residence, which she views as a blow to any kind of black community on campus. Circling all of this is Lionel Higgins, a student journalist who doesn't quite fit in anywhere, given that he's black and gay and without a permanent place in the hierarchy of the schools residences. Lionel by his own admission, is a sci fi geek, likes Robert Altman films, and listens to Mumford and Sons. He's recruited by the local paper to infiltrate Sam's movement to muckrake, but Lionel is also witness to the planning of Pastiche's rebuke to Sam and her politics at their annual party, and suddenly, he's at the center of a storm of controversy...

Altman is a good touchstone for this film. Like Altman's more famous works, this is a collection of intersecting stories, with a sprawling cast of characters. There's a lot going on in this film. More than that, Tyler James Williams's Lionel Higgins, the film's unlikely hero, greatly resembles Altman's version of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, who drifts along at the fringes with an "I'm okay, you're okay" attitude, until he's ultimately confronted by something with which he's not okay. Lionel is a character we don't often see in movies, and never as a hero: gay, nerdy, and black.

Teyonah Parris in Dear White People

Most of the characters in this film are conscious subversions of expectations, though. Certainly Tessa Thompson's Sam White is an ambivalent firebrand, whose activism is rooted in a desire to run from the fact that her father is white and assert her identity as a person of color. Even beyond her role as the film's political lightning rod, she's an example of the complexity of race relations in America as not only an us versus them proposition, but as a conversation and intermingling. Likewise, Teyonah Parris's Coco Connors is a character more commonly encountered as a white character, but this is detonated late in the film when the impossibility of her aspirations are revealed, exposing her own self-hatred. Self-hate seems to be the motivating factor behind Brandon Bell's Troy Fairbanks, too, who is simultaneously running away from his father's identity as a house negro and embracing his aspirations as a fixture in a white culture by dating the daughter of his dad's boss. He's a complicated character. Hell, everyone in this film is complicated. Its characters have been carefully constructed as both realistic avatars of the film's thematic concerns, as convincing real people unto themselves, and as chess pieces in the overall game of the film's plot.

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People

Even though I've suggested Altman as a touchstone for this film--in part because the film name-drops him--this doesn't much look like an Altman film. In its visual sensibility, it plays like a more deadpan version of Wes Anderson, while the structure of its plot is borrowed from a thriller. It's highly stylized, and not in ways you expect from the material. This could easily have been done as a mocumentary, given that it's most important characters are media students, but director Justin Simien is much more disciplined than that. He's assembled the film as a kind of post-modern put-on instead, as film savvy as Tarantino (perhaps as a rebuke to Tarantino's penchant for cultural appropriation), as verbally caustic as Wilder, and as dense as Kubrick.

The Pastiche party at the end of the movie is so broadly conceived and so grotesque a display of racial insensitivity and outright racism that a white audience might be tempted to sidestep it entirely as not germane to them, as a hyperbole meant to be shaming. This is one of the few films where an ending consisting of photographs from the real life events that inspired the film is not only necessary, but devastating, because this film's central event invents nothing and cannot be sidestepped. It's a sly piece of confrontation, given that the film's deadpan occasionally lends it a surreal unreality, but that seems of a piece in the end, even though the individual round pieces sometimes seem like they've been hammered into square holes. This takes on aspects of a puzzle movie, the kind of film where the whole picture isn't revealed until the end, and then, when it is, it clarifies everything. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this kind of filmmaking, because even though I like viewing the whole, I also like being lost in the details. Sometimes, the discordant details prevent that, perhaps by design. Everything in this film is a construct and a facade, after all, and the whole mimics the parts in this respect at least.

In any event, this is a bracing film, one that's necessary in the "post-racial" America of Barack Obama. We haven't gotten past all of this shit for all the guilt of liberals and all the denial of conservatives, and until we do, America is going to continue to thrash around and rage like a would-be angel whose wings have been nailed to the floor.

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