As much as the film was advertised as a satire and does use irony to express the complicated dichotomy between racial ideology and personal identity, it also uses satire as something entirely unfunny. Although the black-themed party in the film is supposed to be a satire to expose the stupidity of the Black Student Union, it becomes apparent very quickly that the party, though meant in jest, is not a joke at all. The black-themed party turns into a bunch of white students wearing black face and mocking icons of black culture. Similarly, though Dear White People is advertised as a satire, it also becomes clear that there is nothing truly ‘over-the-top’ or ‘ironic’ about the way these students act and react to what is happening to them. The only irony in this movie— save a few one-liners and small throwaway moments— is that of the situation for the audience. The audience goes in expecting a big joke that we can all have a good laugh about. For some, they’ll come out still seeing the humor in all of it: poking fun at white privilege, black character tropes, and college education. For others, however, they’ll come out seeing that this really isn’t a joke at all. They’ll see that this film is not only an observation of race relations on a college campus, but also of the complexity of black identity from a member of that community.
The moral ambiguity of all of the black characters of the film is the second proof of the film’s genius. It’s easy to create a film that points out the inherent racism perpetuated by white culture: it’s obvious, it (very unfortunately) happens every day, and it’s constantly shown to us. Like the TV producer says at the end of the film: “The only thing audiences love to hate more than a black person is a really racist white guy.”
It’s much harder to create a film that turns the mirror on the race in question, showing what goes on within the race that is also problematic. Some people don’t want to be black, while other people only want to be black. Some people see blackness as one thing, while others see it as something else. Some people can’t separate their racial identity from their personal identity, while other people can’t seem to reconcile the two. This movie brings up questions of blackness not only in relation to the white majority in which all black people live, but also within the minority from which blackness springs. This movie presents questions that are purposely left unanswered to give the audience something to think about. What is blackness? Who defines what it is? How does it fit within (both black and white) society?
Very much like Sam White doesn’t want to speak for her whole race, neither does this movie. The film isn’t the Black Student Union: it doesn’t aim to police what we think blackness is or isn’t, how black people should or shouldn’t be. It merely holds up the mirror and has us take a look for ourselves. We, as viewers, are left to do the rest.
Dear White People is not without flaws. There’s an arguable amount of misogyny in the fact that it takes a white male to make Sam White comfortable enough to do what she wants instead of what is expected of her. There is plenty of dialogue that is forced, though mostly for the purpose of explaining complex ideas (i.e. racism vs prejudice) for the sake of the viewer, and some of the characters leave a lot to be desired. There are parts of the film that are laugh-out-loud funny in their cynicism or backhandedness, but there are plenty of parts that are just uncomfortable in the ‘bad joke writing’ way. Dear White People wasn’t perfect in many ways.
But Dear White People does something that it’s very hard to do well in racially driven pieces of cinema. Dear White People holds everyone accountable. It shows the damage that white people do, why it’s bad, and how deliriously apathetic we are towards the whole behemoth that is racism. And it makes me (a white person), both ashamed and determined to be better. But it also reveals a little known secret of blackness: that black people can be prejudiced against each other as well as themselves. It shows that we all have a moral gray area that we must carefully examine as individuals, rather than criticize as groups. Dear White People lets no one off the hook. It’s not just white people that have to be better. We all have to be better. No one is responsible for teaching us what to think or how to think it; we need to hold ourselves accountable if we want to move forward.
Love it or hate it, Dear White People is a daring debut film from a new director that we’re going to have to watch out for. Justin Simien knows our secrets and is willing to cook them up, serve them to us, and give us something to chew on. It’s not easy, it’s not clean, and it doesn’t leave us sure of anything. For many people, it’ll probably be hard to swallow, never mind digest. Despite that, it makes us work our jaws, trying to glean something out of the mess. Justin Simien isn’t afraid to show the world in its all-too-real and least flattering light: no heroes or villains, just what is left of humanity as we create it.
Meaghan McDonough is a sophomore WLP major who spends more time watching TV and movies than she does actually doing school work. When she manages to leave Emerson's campus, she's most likely exploring Boston, on the hunt for her new favorite restaurant.