Hailed as the must-see satire of the year, Dear White People, writer-director Justin Simien’s feature length directorial debut has experienced a cacophonous reception since it took home the Sundance Film Festival’s prestigious U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Even more buzz worthy are the indie film’s laugh-out-loud hilarious PSA shorts—themed after the Emmy Award-winning “The More You Know” series—that have dared to debunk stereotypes, myths and urban legends about the black community at-large. While there are those lucky enough to have seen the film during its run around the indie film circuit, there’s been plenty of speculation as to what the message of the film will be by those who haven’t. Curiosities have also sparked whether Simien’s ruminations on race in a ‘post-racial’ 21st century America would actually connect with the modern Black community. Understandably, there are fears that the film was designed as fodder for a good laugh but would ultimately appease and not upset white theater goers making it less “revolutionary.”
It’s just. Especially when powerhouse publications like Rolling Stone—whose infamous “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” special issue, for example, omitted many significant works of art by Black musicians—have given the film rave reviews. In a time where many black ensemble films are divided into two camps, the eye-roll inducing rom-com troupes rooted in Christian dogma or the long-suffering Afrocentric and violent hood film, there seems to be very little to fill the chasm of the great Spike Lee vs. Tyler Perry divide. Though Simien’s cinematic premiere does recall Lee’s cult hit School Daze albeit the musical numbers, it appears to take a step in a new and long-awaited direction as far as film with all black leads are concerned. However, until the film sees its national release, there are 10 rational fears Black people should have regarding Dear White People. And boy, is there a lot of pressure on this film!
Unreceptive White Audience
Let’s face it; the title of the film alone stimulates knee jerk reactions, and thus, it’s easy to understand that non-POC will get defensive or dismissive. So, one hopes the film lends itself to more comical terrain and brings to light stereotypes rather than wagging fingers and alienating white people. No one wants that. At the same time, it should face the issues of race, class and privilege head on.
The Blame Game
With all of the controversy surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and the peaceful protest and civil disorder that followed, its fair to ponder whether this would have an effect on viewership and how people will view the film. The summer of 2014 will go down on record as being a pivotal eye-opener for the black community and the American public concerning racial politics, the militarization of the police and police brutality. With its release date pushed back for over a year, Dear White People has the difficulty of being released in a time where accountability and blame have been a source of heated ethnic tension, and rightly so. But with the current state of affairs, perhaps the finger-pointing and crucibles should actually be pointed at all people, despite the narrative of prejudice between white and Black persons. There really isn’t an answer to solve these micro-aggressions and racist undertones, as we all know, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So, we hope Simien’s much-anticipated film doesn’t pretend to have all the answers or direct the rage at one group only.
Being Perceived As Too Hostile Or Militant
Oh, c’mon. You know you saw this coming. Like, it was so obvious. Everything in the trailer from a’s (played Tessa Thompson) belly laugh provoking Gremlins exposé to the hysterically funny box office confrontation may come off as militant. While many Black theater goers would be tickled pink by the richly witty observations that could place Simien alongside other celebrated provocateurs (Aaron McGruder, Lee Daniels), it could estrange white audiences and isn’t the point of wide releases is to be seen by all?
A Different Portrayal
Probably more than any other Black film that lists horrible atrocities that African-Americans and black people everywhere have endured at the hands of white oppressors (Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, Tate Taylor’s The Help), Dear White People has come under fire because it signals a shift in the focus of its narrative, from the perspective of Black millennials. From the appearances of the trailer, gone are the dutiful servants (The Butler), the neck-rolling ride-or-die get-it-girl types (Beauty Shop, B*A*P*S) or incompetent minstrel stereotypes (Soul Plane). Instead, from the trailers it seems to actually shine a more realistic light on some of today’s black college students. Though, it’s a stretch. Is white America ready? Is the world ready? It’s not new to have seen Black people in high-ranking positions (“The Cosby Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) but to see them in a college comedy with the story based around them as the central focus? It’s unheard of. Will the film’s characters simply just be run of the mill caricatures? While the teaser trailer may hook viewers, it nonetheless sells itself short by distorting the message, materializing a satire of stereotypes. Though the extended trailer setups the movie well, showcasing entwining supporting characters and subplots, it gives off the impression that protagonist Sam—a biracial film student/activist described as what could have happened “if Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey had some sort of pissed-off baby”— is going to be cured of her “intellectual Black girl” trope, which Hollywood loves to do to these radical activist types. And that would be no bueno. All things considered, Simien and his crew can’t also distance itself from Black America either.
Will Non-Blacks Get The Humor & References
Understandably, one of the biggest concerns is whether or not other people of color as well as the title audience will actually gravitate and understand the humor and references, which could in bouts be niche to the Black community. After all, it’s a comedy. People are meant to laugh and have a good time. But where is the line between “too black” and “universal”? However brilliant the films are, for example, the same could be said of the hugely successful Monty Python films, whose off-the-cuff rollicking wit has had little crossover success with communities of color. One could argue, perhaps unfairly, that the humor in those films is very embedded into the white male dominated culture.