Dear White People (US 2014)

dwp_poster This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. dear-white-people-sam Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. Dear-White-People-group I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.

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2 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    I think we both have more or less similar responses to this film on first viewing. Like you I couldn’t understand quite a bit of the dialogue. Partly that’s my old ears and the tendency of contemporary actors to mumble but also the film does use several cultural references and various vocabularies that I’m not familiar with. I look forward to a DVD with English subtitles.

    However, I do think that the script is richer and more complex than you imply. It’s important that the film addresses what it means to be a Black Ivy League student in Obama’s America – i.e. it is about contemporary Black identity in a society in which many young people don’t know the history of struggle of their parents and grandparents. The film shows how institutional racism still operates and how it might be more difficult for young people to recognise. (It all seems a long way from the overt racism, also institutionalised, in the police actions against young black men referenced in films like Fruitvale Station.) This is picked up in a number of ways. Sam is ‘bi-racial’ and her status is important in the campaign that she leads which ironically attempts to repeal the college rule which de-segregated the fraternity houses. She wants to preserve a Black house in order to retain the culture in the face of white appropriation. In doing so she throws Lionel out of the dining room along with the rich white kids.

    The film’s Press Kit is available on http://www.dearwhitepeoplemovie.co.uk (which also lists various screening dates in the UK, including Vue multiplexes). I’d also recommend Ashley Clark’s Sight and Sound (August) piece on the film.

    Did you find the reference to Curzon World in Sight and Sound‘s review? I think that’s wrong. The BBFC gives Signature Entertainment as applying for the Certificate and the FDA gives the cinema distributors as ‘The New Black Film Collective’ which makes more sense as they’ve distributed it using a different model.

    I don’t think the 2K DCP is a problem but the image does look very ‘clean’ and bright with little texture. I strongly agree with the recommendation to go back to Bamboozled (which was also a film that experimented with digital film alongside traditional celluloid).

    The DVD is due out on August 18.

  2. keith1942

    Fair comment Roy. The film does have complexities and it is sharp on the contemporary world. However, I thought it did not follow the logic of the film’s contradictions in its resolution. We do have the unholy deal with ‘reality TV’. But for the four key characters life seems to proceed without taking great account of events and their part in them. This was re-in-forced as there were two unresolved plot points concerning Sam and Coco.There are a couple of critical comments on the idea of ‘Obama’s America’ in the film: but the ending appears to accept some version of that. While I found Ashley Clark’s piece informative I think he did not really addressed that aspect.
    By comparison Bamboozled follows its logic and the resolution approaches tragedy.
    Thanks for the point about the distributor, as you write, this makes more sense.
    This means we have to cross-check S&S now: I expected better of print publications.

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