Don Stryker’s review of Dear White People the film to be discussed at Continuing. Conversations on November 3 at Princeton Public Library. …
I went to this film anticipating the “Biting Satire of Racial Politics” that the advertising promised, expecting a satirical look at being a “black face in a white place.” But, the descriptions seemed to be more about promoting the film than describing the film.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the film, the cinematography and the talented actors in it, but the satire felt to me rather light handed and pretty much free of bite marks. It seemed more like a coming of age story embedded in a college romance, combined with a quest to figure out one’s identity, than the social satire I was hoping for. Yes, there were some right on jabs at white privilege and white elitist assumptions, some pokes at black critiques of blackness, and abundant deflating of stereotypes both white and black, but for the most part the movie stayed within a pretty secure comfort zone.
That got me thinking about why it was hyped as a satire of racial politics, other than to attract an audience. I think that two things may have happened between the initial concept and the final editing. First, the edgiest satire, which shows up in the multiple trailers making the rounds on YouTube and other sites, might have been cut to make the movie more comfortable for a wider audience. So that poses the question:
Is this country ready for a really good comedy about the black experience from a black viewpoint, when the major movie going demographic is still white? If not, why and when?
Second, there was subtle message sandwiched between the very end of the film and the list of credits, and this other message was the focus of the film’s turning point. This was the “black face” party hosted by Pastiche, the all-white campus humor magazine. In the movie the black character Coco Conners, who wants to build a TV career for herself, is challenged by the black producer of a reality TV series to create a controversy that he can use for an episode. She promotes a “black face” party to the white staff of Pastiche and they buy into the idea. The resulting party, saturated with racist stereotypes, unleashes a campus controversy in which the white characters remain clueless and defensive while the black characters are challenged by the circumstance to choose sides and take a stand. Coco meanwhile takes credit for causing this conflict while justifying her actions.
At the end of the film, images of whites holding “black faced” costume parties flash by, sandwiched between the final scene and the list of credits. These images were of actual “black face” costume parties recently hosted by white fraternities, sororities and social clubs at colleges and universities around this country. The current online issue of Al Jazeera America has an article about this trend. This poses a bigger question:
Are these white college students so arrogant towards other races, religions and cultures, that costumes portraying stereotypes are funny and acceptable to them? Do these students dwell in a such a bubble of white privilege that they can’t see, think and feel beyond it? Has the myth of “post racial” America become the excuse for indulging in racist behavior, because racism is supposedly over, so it’s now okay to indulge in stereotypes?
The thoughts expressed are the opinions of the writer and are not necessarily the views of Not in Ou rTown and Continuing Conversations or the Princeton Public Library.
Don Stryker, October 28, 2014