Film Analysis: Justin Simien’s — Dear White People (2014)
Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” is a satirical comedy investigating an old phenomenon: Black Identity in the United States of America, which is ironic, seeing as the film seems to be addressed to white people. Borrowing stylistic elements from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and subject from Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”, it’s about everyone and everything and that kind of scope exposes Simien to missing critical perspectives or perpetuating harmful stereotypes, which he does from time to time — which is a common critique of Spike Lee’s films. He does a good job of modernizing racism, bringing something new to the narrative surrounding racism without sweeping declarations and definitive statements on a subjective and ever-changing issue. It’s his way of saying there are no easy solutions to issues of race and he makes this evident through the lives of the four students at the center of the four main characters — Sam White, Troy Fairbanks, Lionel Higgins and Colandrea “Coco” Conners.
Simien ‘Dear White People’ is a film about the struggle to reconcile or reject how the world views you with who you really are. The film makes the argument that that’s something most black people can identify with, as all the main characters are struggling with that same problem, in hopes of defining themselves. Simien uses four black students at a predominantly white Ivy League University. Sam is the biracial leader of the Black Student Union who openly rejects implicit and explicit racism on campus. Troy is the son of the Dean who dates the University President’s white daughter and tries to assimilate whiteness by appearing non-threatening and cool. Coco is a dark skinned, blue contact-wearing Economics major from South Side Chicago who tries her best to reject blackness and assimilate whiteness by self-deprecation. Lionel is a gay black student who is struggling to fit in with the white students, having decided based on his experiences in high school that the black students will never accept him. Simien uses these four to deal with issues of performing blackness, class, privilege, micro-aggressions and in a climax like Radio Raheim’s murder in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, he levels criticism at the feet of the white students and makes a point about black people being complicit in racism.
Firstly, Simien’s depiction of Sam, though nuanced is reminiscent of the stereotypes Spike Lee invokes with his female characters like Sloan in “Bamboozled”. Before she goes through her period of defining herself (which includes rejecting the students of the Black Student Union) and choosing film as her means of protest, she is loud and antagonistic in an almost Sapphire way and hostile to Troy (who she used to date) — especially for dating a white girl. She uses sex appeal to placate/manipulate Reggie and avoid having the conversation about sleeping with white student Gabe. Her moment of reconciliation with herself comes in connecting with her white father and her white boyfriend Gabe. Simien uses Sam (and the blackface party), to question performing blackness. She pretended to be the black activist in the style of 60’s Civil Rights Movement, and in doing so she went through the struggles many women of that era faced, like reconciling her home life to her activist life. In atypical Tragic Mulatto style, Sam goes through intense upheaval about being not being fully black, however, Simien also uses her to make the point that not only are “mulattoes” or biracial people not tragic, they occupy a space of privilege in the world, they often lead black institutions like Sam in leading both the student union and the Armstrong Parker Hall of Residence. Our attitudes to them are also more forgiving, as Sam finds happiness at the end of the film, but dark-skinned Coco is rejected both by Sam at the end of the party and by Troy, of whom she earlier says prophetically “A girl like me is just a placeholder for ya’ll at a place like this.”
Secondly, Coco is a dark-skinned, blue contacts-wearing Economics major from a middle class family in an “inner-city” community in Chicago, trying everything to assimilate whiteness and escape her “ordinary” background. She does not want to live in the traditionally black Armstrong Parker House, aiming for a traditionally white hall to find the “Olivier to her Halle Berry”. It’s easy to stereotype Coco. She uses sex as a tool for upward mobility, flirting with the openly racist Garmin House boys, and sleeping with the son of the Dean — Troy Fairbanks. Simien humanizes her, albeit problematically in her post-coital conversation with Troy when she admits that she just wants people to remember her name. It’s problematic, because just like Sam, Coco’s most honest and vulnerable moments are prompted by the actions and questions of the males in their lives, especially through sex.
Thirdly, Troy Fairbanks is an all-around popular guy, president of Armstrong-Parker Hall of Residence at Winchester University, who also happens to be the son of the University’s Dean. He also dates the white daughter of the President of the University at the compulsion of his father who claims that President Fletcher is less qualified and competent than he is but has still managed to rise higher than him. Troy is also conflicted, largely disassociating himself from the lived experiences of other black people and insulating himself and his world view in a blanket of the privileges of wealth and connections. Troy’s disassociation and attempted assimilation, which ultimately fail, force him to also deny and hide parts of himself that are integral to his personality for fear of being perceived as “stereotypically black”. Simien points to the issues of privilege with Troy. He knows he’s black, accepts his blackness, but due to his father’s vendetta, he is forced to deny parts of his blackness, and naturally, parts of himself to fit in with his white counterparts. Yes, he has many things going for him, but he, of the four main characters, is the one with the least agency regarding his life and the least control over his identity. Even when he perceives the racism in his fellow students, especially his girlfriend who Sam calls out with “Dear White People, this just in, dating a black person to piss off your parents, is a form of racism.” he is forced to play it off to please his father. This is also an interesting depiction of how black family shapes identity. In a film industry where black men are far more likely to be portrayed as being fatherless and dangerous Troy is a safe black man, never menacing. However, the father figure in his life is not a good influence on his life — which Sam also points out saying Dean Fairbanks would “rather please his massa, than stand up for his own”.
Finally, Lionel Higgins is a gay sophomore who struggles to fit in. His high school experiences with black people have led him to believe that they will never accept him and his current experiences with white students leave much to be desired as the members of the Hall of Residence he belongs to “Garmin House”, torment him unceasingly in both racist and homophobic ways. He finds some brief solace in writing for one of the campus papers however, he, as Sam prophecies in the earliest moments of the film, becomes a token — never taken seriously and regarded as not being ‘really black’ by the white people he works with. In some ways the stereotypes and assumptions made about Lionel mirror the ones he holds about the black students — something he discovers through the horror of the blackface party and gets the students of colour to help him stop. He becomes friends with them after that incident, and they do not judge him or treat him differently in any way.
Ultimately, Simien’s “Dear White People” uses stereotype-resisting young black characters to present racism in very every day, human ways. It’s the things most people experience like being mistaken for anyone with the same skin tone as you, or having people constantly touch your hair. But it’s also in the University system that allows the boys who torment Lionel to get away with it, and it is intersectional, because Lionel’s sexuality is also a source of torment for him. It’s not benign, because all the stereotypes the white students have of black people lead them to think it’s okay to have a blackface party. It’s also internal — as all characters harbor their own biases and discriminate against each other in different ways no better than how the others treat them. It’s a nuanced, sometimes problematic, modern portrayal that hits the mark more often that it misses it.