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London Film Festival: Dear White People

Sunday 19 October 2014, by Coco Green

Screenwriter and director Justin Simien follows the lives of four African-American co-eds on an elite university campus to explore media representation, black authenticity and white privilege in 2014. As a UC Berkeley alum (go Bears!), this was somewhat relatable, and as someone interested in racism and racial politics I was delighted to see characters who, despite being groomed for a privileged life by their upwardly mobile parents, found themselves balancing a need to find a sense of self with the realities of post-racial racism and the call to fight it—but not by any means necessary.

To be clear, Dear White People has a witty dialogue, observational humour and quick one liners, so for that reason alone you have to go to see it (unless you want everyone to think you’re racist). In fact the jokes were so good and came so fast that I missed some of them from laughing. And despite other reviews that have suggested that the film has it’s back to the future, Simien’s is a new voice that speaks to the middle-class
African-American 21st century experience. They will likely not be harassed by police or institutionalised in prisons, but will navigate a social world inhabited by people who (mostly) abhor racism, date black people and voted for Obama; yet they will have their intellect, competence and cultural capital challenged at every turn. So think more Bamboozled than School Daze.

However, despite being spot on about black middle class angst there were some glaring omissions that are crucial for a film that aims to cover new ground and challenge stereotypes. Firstly, despite the title white politics was never defined or confronted. Sam, the protagonist with the titled radio show, and Gabe, Sam’s white friend, were depicted as transcending the politics of the film. There was no discussion of the unquestioned leadership of the lighter complexioned students nor an acknowledgment of how colourism operates to allow a certain level of access to people and systems which is then denied to darker people. In addition, Gabe never had to explain his views on race or assert any anti-racist politics or beliefs. Instead he gave Sam the space to be herself, which falsely suggests that white people exist in a non-racialised world and which isn’t possible for exclusively black groups. Lastly, although African-Americans are presently the only group to be ghettoised in the US and racialised by hypodescent, race is not a black-white issue. Yes, the Asian-American character Sungmi was an ally and a resident of the traditionally black residence hall, and she did make a quip about the Latino-American and Asian-American student groups, but brown people were generally absent from the film.

Smart films about race are rare and Dear White People certainly succeeds where so many other films have failed. The only caveat is to look beyond the obvious; the film is at its best and most radical when it’s at its most subtle. If you weren’t lucky enough to benefit from the petition that brought another showing to London, fret not - the film will be released in UK theatres in 2015.

Dear White People (2014) Dir. Justin Simien

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