'Dear White People': An Important Film, Flaws and All

by Michelle Jackson

The highly anticipated and acclaimed film, “Dear White People,” had its national release this weekend. However, I was fortunate to see it a week early here in Los Angeles, during its limited release in select cities. Now that the film has had its major release, I feel like I can finally share my true feelings about “Dear White People.” I believe it to be an important film that everyone should see, especially those of us who care deeply about America’s race problem. However, it is not without its flaws.

The early screening I attended took place in Century City, an affluent part of Los Angeles near Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica. Knowing the demographics of this area, I should not have been so surprised that there were as many white people in the audience to see the film as there were Black people, if not more. I also should not have been surprised that many of the jokes in the film—written from the perspective of director and writer Justin Simien, a Black man—got so many loud and hearty laughs from white patrons. After all, the film does cater to a specific, liberal white audience: those who are well-intentioned, self-critical of their privilege, and somewhat aware of their ignorance about how to interact with people of color.

In the same way the film represents one facet of the Black experience in America, I also believe it represents the white experience of Black in America. This is what makes “Dear White People” such a successful and revelatory film—it unflinchingly addresses the often unspoken issues of mistrust between Blacks and Whites. And the fact that it manages to do so with both an appealing and biting humor is no small feat, and I applaud the movie’s auteur, Justin Simien, for his ability to do so. Often, films that deal with our country’s issues with racism and race relations are heavy, laboring dramatic works. This may be the first film I’ve ever seen a movie that dealt with racism, without leaving me incredibly depressed or angry when it ended.

I also enjoyed the specificity of the characters and the actors’ wonderful performances. I’m sure anyone who has been to college within the last 10 to 15 years recognized these portrayals. I know I have encountered an individual who represented every single one of these characters: The mixed girl who must prove her Blackness militantly (Tessa Thompson as “Samantha”). The Black girl who thinks the answer to racism is aligning herself as closely to standards of white beauty and success as possible (Teyonah Parris as “Coco”). The Black kid who is too “white” to fit in with his “own kind” and too other to fit in with anyone else (Tyler James Higgins as “Lionel”). Throughout the showing, I found myself thinking, “Yes! This is so on point!”

This being said, I still believe the movie could have been stronger. While I celebrate Simien’s vision and tenacity in bringing “Dear White People” to a national audience, the narrative itself was not fully developed. I think some people will argue that it was not meant to end nicely wrapped up, which I agree with to a point. It is a cinematic cliché for movies about social issues to have a palatable, warm-and-fuzzy conclusion. It would also have been dishonest, as we are still grappling with our country’s legacy of systemic racism on macro and micro levels everyday. Still, as a writer and storyteller myself, I feel like Simien could have done a better job at making the movie a well-rounded story, rather than a collection of characters, jokes, and moments meant to embody his particular brand of cultural commentary about race and U.S. society.

I also do not believe the film lives up entirely to its name—beyond the fact that it’s also the cleverly derived name of the students radio show Samantha hosts. Seeing this film in an auditorium of white people from their early twenties to mid-50’s, I wonder what they took away from it. For me, it felt great to see characters who looked like me and actually had experiences similar to mine represented on the big screen—and reacting to the type of nuanced (yet still harmful and maddening) racism Black people face on a daily basis. For them, I wonder if it was anything more than an opportunity to laugh and then pat themselves on the back, an opportunity for them to say, “I’m laughing, so you can see I understand why this is problematic! See? I’ve transcended my privilege and racism!”

Yes, I enjoyed “Dear White People.” Yes, I already foresee the lasting cultural impact it will have, as many have already described it as a “cult classic.” Yes, I left the theater feeling good about this very good film. So much so, that I would not be surprised if it receives a number of nominations in major categories come awards season. But I view this as part of the problem: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is still a white institution, and so is the United States of America.

Far too many white people left feeling good about themselves after seeing this film, congratulating themselves on being so “conscious,” but I think many of them missed the point entirely.

Dear White People: Stop congratulating yourselves. You still need to do better.

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, and storyteller from Southern California. She has performed her work in Southern California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. For more information, you may visit her website at www.michelledenisejackson.com.

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