by Clarke Wheeler
|The lack of knowledge about this movie on campus is troubling.|
Ask a student on Columbia’s campus if they have heard of the film Dear White People, and, many times, the response will be a tentative “No” with a facial reaction of confusion and alarm. I have encountered a lack of knowledge of Dear White People on campus, despite the film’s clear relation with Columbia University, as a predominantly white institution (PWI), and seemingly widespread reach on social media. The film, directed by Justin Simien, has garnered an enthusiastic following with not only its trailer, but with short videos, posters of movie quotes, and a full-fledged social media campaign. The film has also won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Yet most importantly, the lack of knowledge of Dear White People at Columbia, particularly among non-students of color, in combination with the high enthusiasm for the film within circles of color on social media and in daily conversation, is a real manifestation of what the film was addressing – the complex and often misunderstood reality black students experience at predominantly white institutions.
The film frames the experience of being “a black face in a white place” around Samantha (Sam) White, a biracial student at the fictional PWI, Winchester University. Sam has a radio show and self-made guidebook entitled “Dear White People”, an increasingly powerful role on the school’s Black Students Union (BSU), and a number of multifaceted relationships with other students. Her relationships, both romantic and political, can never be fully characterized as “good” or “bad”, and usually complicate her character as an outwardly progressive, outspoken campus figure and inwardly manipulative and conflicted between her identities. Every other black student in the film, including, but not limited to, the wealthy son of the Dean who likes to smoke weed and dreams of writing for SNL, a girl from the South Side of Chicago actively separating herself from anything and everything “black”, and a gay student who doesn’t understand how he fits in with the “gay community” or “black community”, presents this same level of complexity and deals with being a black face in a white place in unique and, often, harmful ways. These identities of black students, although very common, are rarely, if ever, explored in film or any media form, so it is especially admirable and crucial that Dear White People engages in this exploration.
|Finally, a movie that showcases black student identities.|
In the end, all of these characters experience racism in various forms, both from the administration and the student body. While all of the characters change because of it, however, none of them fully “improve”. They find new ways to deal with their situation but still must deal with it every moment of their lives. The lack of a solution, or even suggestions of how to reach a solution, throughout the film is essential to the film’s success in articulating an argument about being a black face in a white place and, more broadly, about race relations in the United States. A solution would imply that the issues raised in the film can be easily addressed or that, in some way, these issues are actually being solved at all. Instead, Dear White People presents in a real way what is happening now with regards to race relations on college campuses and black millennial identity. It effectively shows that racial issues are complex and the humans involved are even more so. The United States is fundamentally based in horrible racial relations and people in this country, particularly black Americans, must grapple with this legacy in every aspect of their daily lives. Ultimately, Dear White People succeeds at depicting the many faces of the people, institutions, and larger forces that contribute to and fight to maintain racism in society – an achievement that is essential to the possibility of eventual improvement for race relations in this country.
Clarke Wheeler is a junior at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.