Please Return to Sender (Dear White People Review)

Racism’s greatest power is its ability to drastically simplify the world. Through racism, literally all things – clothing, behaviors, desires, needs, potentials, friendships –  become ordered and recognizable, “obvious” and apparent. Racism provides answers by making the world unquestionable.

Given this alarming power, the fundamental task of all anti-racist work is to deny this contrived simplicity and undermine it, exposing the unrelenting complexity of the world and refusing to accept anything less, anything simple. There are many ways to oppose racism – after all, it does impact everything – but no matter the anti-racist technique or strategy, the goal is always to re-complicate the world. Thus, the rudimentary starting point for any fight against racism is to not accept its simplified, basic terms.

Dear White People, a movie about racism on a fictional college campus, does not do this. It is basic. Despite its expansive cast and bold ambitions, Dear White People wholeheartedly accepts the readymade conventions of racism. Both the main cast and the secondary characters are developed into overwhelmingly lame, straightforward caricatures. Sam is a biracial black woman struggling between two lovers, one black, the other white (ugh). Troy, a preppy black guy, is a pawn in his black father’s multi-generational conflict with his school’s president, a white man. Coco is an upwardly mobile black woman from the south side of Chicago who wants to rise above her background. Lionel is a gay black man who is ostracized by both the black and white communities on campus.

None of these characters are necessarily predisposed towards flatness. In fact, they are all potentially interesting, especially Lionel (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cared about the college experiences of gay black dudes), but the film corrals each of them, and the secondary characters that they are connected to, onto either side of a very poorly-conceived racial divide: black vs white. There is nothing wrong with establishing factions and seeing how their ambitions collide, but the factions in Dear White People are never truly embroiled.

The characters each engage in their own racialized skirmish, but their actions are always predetermined by their position on the divide, their race. All the white characters are unrepentant or accidental racists; all of the black characters inevitably affirm their blackness. The only person who doesn’t get any resolution is Sam, but even her struggle is predictable: she is biracial so of course she cannot pick a side. (It was hard not to laugh when Sam decided to move off campus while the other black main characters all stayed at the black dorm)

The inevitability of all the characters’ outcomes and decisions is ultimately self-defeating. The film’s climax, a confrontation at a racist Halloween party, makes this most apparent. The white people are universally offensive and the black people are universally shocked and appalled. The outcome is so unsurprising that its narrative value is completely drained. Seeing the racist party after having already watched over an hour of dry conflict feels like walking around a haunted house with a copy of the floor plan. This isn’t to say that surprise is a necessary element of good filmmaking. Rather, it just felt strange for a movie that traffics in exploring inflexible racial destinies to treat an event it foresaw as something spectacular. It probably would have been more effective to highlight the banality of the party. For instance, I would have been much more horrified if I had seen two white students at the party using “nigger” in a conversation about Tolstoy.

The only particularly interesting thing about the scene is the presence of Asian and Latino students who allied with the black students to shut the party down. Their mere presence hints at more complex race relations on campus. Nevertheless, their presence also highlights their relative absence throughout the rest of the film. They appear only to advance the plot, which is kind of racist. Even within the film, it is not clear why they form this alliance. The film seems to imply that they ally with the black students simply because they are Asian and Latino. It was inevitable, I guess?

All in all, Dear White People is pretty weak. Though it is nice to see a movie that cares about black people and our experiences, mere care is a condescendingly weak threshold for a good movie or for a good perspective on race. Anybody can care, but what marginalized people need is people who care responsibly, intelligently, complexly. There are definitely sides in racial conflict, but they are absolutely not predetermined by race, and to think so is to buy directly into the simplifying logic of racism, no matter which side of the conflict you are on. Dear White People is clearly on the side of anti-racism, but it ultimately fails because it conflates allegiance, disposition, with action, decision. Anti-racism requires more than a sarcastically endearing address – “Dear White People.” More importantly, it requires acknowledging that those people and your relation to them, is much more complex than your sarcasm belies.

Dear People Who Will Want to Support Dear White People

Dear White People looks interesting, but just from the trailer, I can pinpoint its fatal flaw. Straight up, this movie is a bourgeois black hipster’s wet dream. For black people who didn’t go to college or who interact with white people at work or in the world at large, this movie will be uppity fluff. There is a reason that Living Single and Chappelle’s Show resonated more than A Different World and The Cosby Show. Not everyone goes (or should go) to college. That is fine.

What is not fine is the fact that this movie doesn’t look self-reflective. That lack of self-reflexivity is what makes A Different World and The Cosby Show so alienating. To view those shows as a black person who is not middle class is to see your experience flattened and neglected. Black people don’t need [more of] that. We need more works like Do the Right Thing, The Wire and Night Catches Us, projects that are rooted in a particular time and place (and space). Despite what fans of these works say, these movies don’t have pretensions of universality. Dear White People does.

I know that I am speaking very matter-of-factly, as if this movie will instantly become a cult classic. Don’t view that as arrogance. I feel this way because I know people who nostalgically praise The Cosby Show. For them, that show embodies “the black experience,” whatever that means. This worries me because that experience doesn’t exist. The only thing all black people have in common is the experience of racism and even that is a diverse experience.

When Dear White People comes out, go see it, but remember that it is not the definitive manifesto on black life. Neither is Black in America. Neither is BET. Neither is The Wire. In fact, that manifesto has never existed and never will. As evidenced by the sales of Toure’s book, for some people this is news. For me, it is obvious. I sincerely hope that you feel the same way.

Sincerely,

Black Steve (Yes, I am aware of the irony of signing this with this name.)

P.S. As I stated in my post on Rap Genius, I am working on a series of essays in response to the essays in the book That’s the Joint. I wanted to have written a few essays by now, but I’ve been busy. They’re still on the way though. Don’t fret!