Dear White People: a great concept poorly executed

I wanted to like Dear White People. I was so excited, upon seeing the trailer, that the big screen would finally be filled with people discussing racism by pointing out microaggressions and addressing some of the systematic racial issues that undoubtedly still exist. However, the film didn’t do its topic justice. The photographic and editing tactics were completely off, and it was some of the worst, most jumbled storytelling that I’ve seen.

Looking at the film shot-by-shot, it seems almost as though a few young filmmakers grabbed a high quality camera and said “oh my gosh it’d be so cool if we, like, shot it in weird ways to make us seem, like, unique!” There are shots in which the characters are hidden behind large metal art structures and blurry extras who take up three-quarters of the frame. There are dialogue scenes in which the people talking take up a third of the frame and look in the wrong direction, so that the cut to the “eyeline match” is disorienting. There are times when someone is talking, and at first their lips are synced, but as they keep talking, their lips stop moving. I think that Justin Simien, the director and writer, wanted to make an aesthetically interesting film, but his weird shots threw me off and detracted from the message that the film had potential to assert.

Another major problem with Simien’s filmmaking is his lack of a concrete style. He often shifts, unannounced, to an entirely new form of storytelling—from third person to first person, from an omnipresent camera to one that the characters talk into—and then, after we get comfortable with the new technique, he switches back to the original style. For instance, the main character, Sam, starts reciting her book straight to the camera lens, using white words on the screen to highlight some of her monologue. Then, Simien quickly cuts back to a different character and never brings us back into this book-reading style. The film culminates with a hectically shot party scene in which the main characters trash a racist campus, where white students pretend to be black, complete with blackface and ‘purple drank’, and the film’s tone flips completely upside down without warning. Simien’s scenes are lazy, jumbled shots that don’t belong in the same film.

Apart from all of the filmic technique (or lack thereof), the main issue with Dear White People is its confusing, anti-climactic storytelling. Simien attempts to do what Love Actually did so well: he tries to draw together four very different main characters, giving each of them a story line without choosing one as the primary figure of the film. This method simply can’t be used when each of the characters has enough emotional plot and problematic relationships to take up an entire feature-length movie. Sam, the “revolutionary,” struggles between two identities, and the film skims over her own reflections on being a bi-racial activist. Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the “bullied new kid,” faces an entirely different battle as a gay black man, and again, these huge topics are barely evaluated. Coco (Teyonah Paris), the “girly girl” video blogger, gets bashed for being self-depricative, yet when she participates in a racist scheme, we don’t see any after-effect. Finally, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the “son of the Dean of Students, trying to be perfect like my dad wants” stereotype, is somehow lost within all of these other characters, and we see random tidbits of his relationships and his arguments with his father, but we never feel emotionally attached to his story.

Behind all of these uncreative, stereotyped characters is an even more unrealistic college campus: a widely-read newspaper with only two editors who seem to always be in their tiny, newspaper-less office waiting to kiss outcast freshmen; a satirical writing club with only obnoxious male editors, because every white girl on campus is too busy pleasing men and dressing in blackface; and the main, black activist group which is somehow always in a fancy dining room eating chicken and waffles. The president is a white male, conveniently opposing the black, male dean, and both of them say ridiculously uneducated things (i.e. “We are in a post-racial society”) without any backlash other than some baffled looks by Sam.

Really, the only two characters we end up caring about are Sam and Lionel, and even though we do see emotional moments, their stories are incomplete and against the film’s intentions. Sam goes through two relationships, an election, a dying father, and makes three films, a book, and a long-lasting radio show, all while contemplating whether she is a revolutionary black woman or just “wishing that she had oppression to fight against.” Her over-packed persona is already too much to handle, but what Simien does with her story is even more frustrating. After basically being told that she’s “too black,” she takes down her hair, representing her rejection of her black identity to make others aware that her long, brown ringlet curls don’t conform to the expectations of a black person’s hair. Then, she forgives her white boyfriend for telling her to stop being an outspoken revolutionary and quietly holds his hand as they walk off into the distance. Essentially, Simien takes the only voice of reason against racism and tells us that she was too loud and proud and needed to shut up and let racism happen. The last line of her radio show is “Dear white people… nevermind.”

Lionel’s story is just as problematic. After spending the entire film as a victim of racism and homophobia (the latter problem is not addressed at all), his only rebellion is to completely trash the racist blackface party and cause as much violent damage as possible, ending in a fight. Really, Simien? An aspiring journalist uses violence instead of attempting to speak up about why the party might be offensive? In one of the final shots of the film, we see the cover of the newspaper has an article written by Lionel, presumably about the racist events, but we don’t ever actually hear a coherent word about it, we just see him knocking things over.

Simien paints black activists as obnoxious, unreasonably destructive, confused, and entirely unimportant. There are few scenes that actually address microaggressions—we hear maybe two sound bites of Sam’s radio show (the film’s namesake) and there is a random scene of Sam’s friends yelling at the movie man about how black people are portrayed in film—but all of their assertions are things that have already been said by liberal Tumblr accounts and bumper stickers. Don’t touch our hair, weave is a noun, blackface is offensive, black people can’t be racist, they can only be prejudiced. These statements aren’t exactly new, but some will argue that they still deserve to be voiced on-screen: I agree, I just wished that they had been said powerfully and meaningfully, instead of being drowned in confusing filmmaking and poor storytelling. 1/5

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