“Preachy” is a word critics, both amateur and professional, throw out like they see the next Woody Allen movie; regularly, with businesslike efficiency, and knowing full well they are dragging themselves to an early grave in the process. We do it all the time, in other words, even though we know it isn’t good for us. There is nothing wrong with a movie with a high opinion of itself, or a low opinion of others, or a point of view it stands proudly and angrily in favor of, as long as its bite matches its bark. I’ll take a sermon any day, as long as that sermon is delivered with all the fire and brimstone a preacher can muster. When it comes to cinema, I’d rather watch a preacher than a lecturer. About the latter, all I can do is pray.
Dear White People has trouble splitting the difference. It certainly aspires to dress up in its finest lecturer’s garb, boasting information, interrogation, and an army of viewpoints on its side. Justin Simien – who directs and writes – exposes the contrast between the pale, cleanly, rigidly formal halls of fictional Winchester University, a vulcanized Ivy League pretender if ever there was one, and the dirty, barely functioning remarks and eyes that leer across those halls. And across the personal identities the halls would feign to make whole. For four African-American students at Winchester, college is a corporeal dress-up process of mental and ideological norms masqueraded by physical ticks, friend choices, extracurricular activities, and self-sacrificing identification gamuts. Who they are, in other words, becomes a process both social and personal of deep double-consciousness, and while some react to that doubled identity with open arms, most find some aspect of their personality left wanting.
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay student who identifies as a nerd more than a color, has to learn that Winchester’s white students, in their own peculiar and socially reinforced ways, will see him at his face value even when they let him join their inner circles. Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) is a radical, but she pines more for general discontent than a particular cause, a fact that Simien does not disdain unlike so many filmmakers who shun anarchism. Sam wears her drive to mess up the joint like a badge of honor. Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) could not be further across the hall, wielding her speaking patterns, clothing choices, and personal views (all filtered through the wheat thresher of online vlogging), as a respite from her perceived blackness. She wishes for nothing more than to assimilate, and as some might say, to be white. Troy (Brandon Bell), the son of the dean of students, bears no last name – possibly as a reflection of his lack of personal identity – and will do anything it takes, including forgetting his African-American identity or championing it, to round out his resume.
Race is an identity in Dear White People, but also a commodity. Students use it and abuse it, defining friends and enemies through a battleground of stereotypes. Winchester’s African-American students face condescending exoticism in all forms, not all of them obvious. Lionel starts a quasi-relationship with the head of a school newspaper (like an good Ivy, the school has about a dozen, give or take a hundred, publications). But the student only sees Lionel as a weapon for writing “race” articles. Troy’s white girlfriend has an unabashedly racist brother, but she also exoticizes Troy, accentuating his race in bed and assuming he enjoys acknowledgment of only his virile qualities. Thankfully, as well, Simien moves beyond individual micro-aggressions and into institutional discrimination, drawing particular fangs for a school president who doesn’t much seem to care about black students at all on campus.
Where Simien draws real blood, though, is in his dissection of black-on-black relationships, defining and dividing the black community of Winchester as an active, flexing, flexible coalition that remains forever porous and prone to osmosis shifting the dynamics of not only its leaders, but of who even qualifies as black at all.
All of this is worthwhile, provocative material, but Simien hasn’t learned all the lessons he could from Spike Lee (who he explicitly mentions in his film); social radicalism should leave room for aesthetic transgressiveness. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is not only a hot-bed of racially tinged terror, but also a bed of frayed, tangled filmic nerves with theatricality and naturalism lashing out at one another and some of the most scabrous shot selections and framing choices of the 1980s drawing a line in the sand between them and the normal, mundane films around them. Simien has his moments – playing with facial features in implicating close-ups is a direct quote from Lee, defining color as a commodity and directly playing on the audience’s perceived stereotypes. But, although he clearly knows how to evoke the sterile set design of the whitewashing elite college experience, Simien is no Spike Lee as far as aesthetic expressiveness. Unlike Lee, he would prefer to let his script alone do the talking. For all Simien’s salient social observations, falling back on dialogue as his primary information delivery mechanism is disappointingly safe. His film is matched in the radicalism of its argument only by the conservatism of its visual delivery.
In the film, Sam, also a young black filmmaker, pretends to love Lee when her real object of fixation is the whiter-than-white Ingmar Bergman. Simien’s film tries to split the difference between Lee’s combustible, progressive energy and Bergman’s poetic, classical, molasses-still frames. As much as these dueling styles ought to be the perfect fractured contrasts to convey the film’s convulsing double consciousness themes, it never quite comes together; the film is a little too much Bergman if you ask me, and never enough of the feral and reckless youth of Lee at his best. Simien’s talkative, lecture-like film obviously bids for sweat-inducing hysteria toward the end, only to reveal that Simien hasn’t quite developed his filmic muscles to know how to unleash the hounds of social discontent on his audience. He denounces respectability politics – where African-Americans are asked to show off their best, most respectable selves, implicitly to “earn their place”, rather than forcing issues of human rights in a bid for equality. But his film seems oddly respectable and clean in the end, not unlike Troy who typically shuns his race, and there are too few hints that Simien is using his boxed-off technique to comment on the boxed-off nature of race in modern America.
The film’s point may be that it too can never break free of this respectability game, and that it too must adopt a visage of cleanliness to make its provocative argument. But then the film would need a few more tricks to turn the cleanly halls into choking shackles and collars all the same. It either needs to stab respectable, dialogue-driven cinema in the gut or commit so heavily to classical dialogue-heavy Hollywood filmmaking that the conservative style of the film itself becomes a commentary on how even the most progressive films rely on the stodgiest, most conservative techniques to structure their arguments.
Throughout Dear White People, we see two films from Sam. The first is shunned for its rabid energy and the second applauded for its hard-earned, mournful realism. Dear White People feels a need to move from the first to the second film for the latter’s more nuanced racial commentary and intellectual bent. Well and good, but maybe the sweet spot is in the middle. Sam’s first film boasts aesthetic serrated edges aplenty, but the follow-up is less fascinatingly conspiratorial and venomous. Maybe Sam’s first film, a wrath-of-God sermon in cinematic form with stylistic bravado to deliver us away from the false respectability of cinematic naturalism, is where Simien needs to go. After all, cinema needs to work in the gut and not only the mind. Simien has many talents, but he could use a few more dangerous serrated edges of his own. This debut has a touch of fire deep within it, but, to call upon the words of James Baldwin, let us hope it is no match for the fire next time.