“Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends in order to not seem racist has been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count.”
From the first time I saw the trailer, I knew this was a movie I had to see. Set at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League institution, racial tensions run high and the drama is narrated by film major Sam White through her campus radio show “Dear White People.”
Like any burgeoning filmmaker, Sam is constantly trying to tell a story, in this case the tale of being a person of color in a predominantly white environment. Her public persona of being that beautifully articulate angry black woman is tempered with the complexities of her various other identities, particularly the parts of herself and her story that she is reluctant to disclose.
The pacing is quick, the dialogue is bitingly honest, and the characters are nuanced. I sat between my dad and my bestie in a sparsely populated, but mostly white audience, yukking unabashedly at scenes the most of the other people in the theatre seemed too uncomfortable to laugh at.
There is a “did they really just say that” feeling to this movie, partly because so much of it is composed of what doesn’t get said in mixed company. There were cringe-worthy moments, but I’m not giving any spoilers.
Almost more fascinating than the movie itself has been the dialogue surrounding it. First there was the lead up on Facebook. Writer and director Justin Simien used social media to crowd fund the project, so while it’s just now out in theaters I feel like I have been thinking about and talking about this movie for months.
Now that it’s here the conversation has shifted from ‘Who’s going to see it?’ ‘What day?’ ‘What time?’ ‘Can we go as a group,’ to the critical acclaim mixed with the reactionary diatribes: the characters were too simplified, the plot line was too predictable, there should have been more nuance and subtlety because microaggressions are more true to the daily racism most of us experience.
“Dear White People” apparently is not a movie you can simply like or dislike. By taking a stance you are making a political statement.
It reminds me of the reason I only watch Tyler Perry movies in the privacy of my own home. Me saying I like Madea is like outing myself as someone who is promoting the perpetuation of negative black stereotypes. Tyler Perry has made some cringe worthy movies. God knows I get tired of the formulaic victimized women and Christian savior, but let’s face it, whether it’s Tyler Perry or Spike Lee (who I really hate), if there is a movie with black people in it made by black people, if it doesn’t involve slavery, I am probably going to see it.
Why? At the beginning of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf“ there is a stanza that sums it up:
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice.”
I don’t watch Madea movies because I identify with “her” or really any of the characters. I watch them because like many others I am simply starved to see my own reflection, to hear my own voice. “Dear White People,” a movie about black people in white spaces, hit that mark. I have been that angry black girl. I have been the awkward nerdy black kid with unreasonably large hair that white people keep trying to touch (I believe the reference to petting zoo comment came from one of my poems — though I can’t prove it).
The characters I identified less with, like the dean and his perfect preppy son with his creepy, not cute, white girlfriend or the president and his racist over-privileged son, also all felt like people I knew during my time at a prestigious university in New York state.
But even after thoroughly enjoying this movie, from the witty satire, to the cinematography, to the excellent acting, I left feeling sad because it’s 2014 and I am still excited to see a movie about black people. I mean seriously, this whole underrepresentation thing is supposed to be over, like racism, and all the other isms that white people say have ended. Guess not.