SPOILER ALERT: I talk about the ending and such.
This film is a mockery. I call it Media “Beneviolence” when there is a film that is suppose to be “beneficial” (insightful/entertaining) but in reality reinforces “violent” notions (ideologies) and misrepresentations. I expect that there will be a defensive reaction to critical readings of this film but ultimately when the severe problematic elements of this film are shown to be undeniable, faithful advocates of this film will say that it at least inspired conversation – but that is not a merit, it is part of the struggle and this film is on the wrong “side” of that struggle (it lack integrity). Rather than challenge systemic and cultural racism, this film is a tool that further entrenches elements of these discourses and realities. Does this film profess to be radical, critical or at least conscious of race politics? Perhaps not, but due to the lack of meaningful media around race politics in the mainstream, critical responses to media like this are crucial for those who are concerned with these issues. If you are not concerned with these issues we are not having the same conversation, but please feel free to read on.
I had concerns with Lions Gate films and producer Lee Daniels ever since “monster’s ball” with the erasure (and literal extermination) of Black men and the story line “resolving” with the eventual submission (including sexual) of a pathological Black women to an altruistic (and persecuted) white male. “Dear White People” is very similar. The Black men in this film are mostly portrayed as angry, reactionary and shallow (though they are not ALL executed and murdered anonymously as in the aforementioned film). While mostly every Black character in this film is “Angry”, the so-called “revolutionary” group of angry Black people (those actually trying to change the system) is led by a ‘cute’ multi-racial activist that is later revealed to be confused and wrongfully resentful because of her deep guilt around her unjust mistreatment of her ailing white father and supportive white boyfriend. The movie literally ends with her “progressively” leaving the angry Black people (and man) behind (confused and staring) to assume her own life (this is a subverted message that has been massaged into the mentality of many “progressive” Black Individuals – but that is another conversation).
The white “frat boy” image (the juvenile representation of individualistic racism) is vilified, but not critically assessed. At no point are racial politics actually critically assessed – beyond the scene where the (counter)revolutionary protagonist engages on a speedy irritated tirade moments before “just #ucking” her forbidden white lover/boyfriend. Arguably, the only “good man” in this film is this white man that the female Black protagonist initially rejected until she came to realize that her “struggle” had no meaning and eventually realized that her own struggle was “the problem”. She concludes her resistance movement (on her dry radio show) with “DEAR white people, never mind…”
This is significant because of the way systemic and cultural racism is operating in this society, it is very insidious and often very subtle. Many racialized peoples constantly question themselves and feel paranoid about playing the “race card” in a society that is suffocating and murderous, but relatively comfortable if you can “play the game”. It is a reversal of guilt and in-line with the discourse of “reverse racism”, where the exploited are blamed for their own problems and ultimately become their “own problem” while the benefactors of systemic exploitation obtain a “redemptive” status (ex: the ‘white mans burden’)or are at least absolved of responsibility.
The Black student’s concerns in this film are intentionally left groundless. If I had no understanding of the broader political and social context, I would have to neutrally side with the white students convictions regarding the injustice of affirmative action and the “innocence” of cultural appropriation.
After the “revolutionary” provokes the watershed moment of racism in this film, the Black students respond with reactionary violence as they assault the attendants of a college party (that many of them wanted to be an integral part of) in a disempowering and tactless way. The police eventually ride in to save the day and enforce order (per the request of the Black antagonists, who use this action as a redemptive gesture).
The homosexual Black male character is one of the only racialized men in the film that is shown to have a tempered, critical and reflective side, but his sense of agency is somewhat uprooted when he engages in extreme erratic violence that his character seemed to be opposed to throughout the rest of the film (very non-confrontational, timid). While there is a time to be calm and there is a time to have rage in our human struggles, I think that this film continues to recycle problematic tropes. While this character seems to be very insecure (beyond his horribly scripted “free-style” rhymes and dangerous destruction of the DJ booth) his ultimate scene of resistance was connected to his sexuality as he responds to physical assault with sexual assault (an unwanted kiss on the lips). He is then pummelled as he helplessly waits to be rescued. While this aggressive/defensive “kiss” contrast with his sexually submissive interactions with his potential white male lover, I do not think that these moments in film are actually subversive when it comes to addressing discrimination and prejudice based on sexual preference.
The bitter hyper-sexualized Black woman in this film mocks white people for wanting to “be Black”, while having no truly meaningful discussion or reflection about her own affixation of wanting to “be white”. She is left alone and confused at the end of the film as the socially manufactured disconnection between the Black man and woman is reified rather than challenged. Her presence in the film does not challenge, complicate or humanize the character of a stereotyped attractive Black female (with rich deep skin tones and outstanding features) beyond the problematic gaze of lustful desire and exploitation. Every Black character in this film lacks a sense of self-determination and a knowledge of self; and while the purpose of this film does not attempt to do much more than make money from a young audience inundated with anxiety/fear around the current “hot” topic of race (following the increased media profiles of Black persecution in America), I write this to encourage more people to critically assess this film (and the ideologies attached to it) as a manifestation of violence. Once the violence is noted, the solution of knowledge of self and community building can be better supported.
In this film, All of the ‘progressive’ Black characters are intimately/romantically estranged from other Black people in this film and the more blatantly “pathologized” Black characters (the socially mobile male and female that were longing to join the ‘white house’)…. well, they are also intimately/romantically estranged… from Black people…. Unfortunately, for many young Black people, this was the “Obama” of pseudo-hollywood – they were looking forward to seeing something socially relevant and entertaining for a change. My worry is that we will give this film a “pass” because it was framed to be a promising Black project, but please don’t forget who it is addressed to.
Black people, white people, Asian peoples (grossly underrepresented in media), are all human. This is not an angry critique. I am not critiquing inter-racial relationships based on sincere love. There are some deep issues and instead of just shutting down and feeling nearly powerless about these things – or not wanting to put something out there because it will be met with all sorts of defensiveness – here it is.
Ok. I’m done.