‘Dear White People’ sparks probing conversation on race

‘Dear White People’ showed at Images last week followed by a scrutinizing Q & A session. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post
‘Dear White People’ showed at Images last week followed by a scrutinizing Q & A session. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post

Last Thursday night, The Davis Center sponsored a screening of Dear White People and a subsequent Q&A session at Images Cinema, the independent movie theater on Spring Street. By 7 p.m., Images’s single screening room was bursting with students, professors and other moviegoers.

Director Justin Simiens’s newly released movie Dear White People, addresses issues of race and sexuality on American college campuses. The film follows the ups and downs of several students at the fictional elite Winchester University, as they clash with the administration and each other in their romances, friendships and careers.

Three members of the Williams community, two professors and a student, were on hand for a discussion and Q&A session after the movie screening. Tirhaka Love ’15, Professor of Africana Studies VaNatta Ford and Professor of English Christian Thorne filed up to the stage.

Candis Smith, professor of Political Science introduced each of the speakers before allowing them to give their reactions and analyses of the movie and its characters. Though the panel collectively gave a positive review of Dear White People that evening and treated it as a film worthy of more than just superficial analysis, all three also acknowledged its flaws. “I don’t think I completely agreed with [the film’s] perspective,” said Ford. “It’s very important for people to understand what people of color … go through on historically white college campuses.” That is not necessarily to say that, for Ford, the film effectively communicated what she thinks they go through. “The scholarly side of me had such an issue with the packaging of black masculinity in the film,” she said.

Thorne, an expert in critical theory, seemed to concur. “The kind of appetite for a commoditized blackness … is something we haven’t really figured out how to package,” said Thorne.

He also commented on the unexpected ending of the movie, in which the half-black female lead Sam mentions her love for her ailing white father and walks away hand-in-hand with her white love interest, and what he thought these statements implied.

“I’m really surprised to see the movie land on that runway,” Thorne admitted to the audience. He said that he thought the “declaration of love for a white father” was also symbolically suspect.

Additionally, Thorne said, “as a film, it has come out tagged as a black satire by a young black filmmaker,” a label which he felt to clash with the malevolence of the satirist characters in the film (the antagonists are students at the university who run a humor magazine).

Love was not particularly impressed by Dear White People in any way. “The film is, like, fine,” he said to laughter. “I think it has a purpose as far as making this conversation happen.”

Love especially disliked Sam, the main character, for “the anachronisms” of American race relations that he thought she represented. He suggested that Dear White People might have been more effective in fulfilling its mission at another point in history, for example “right after Barack Obama was elected.”

Love, whom Smith introduced as a “black Williams student,” said that for him, “blackness is a connection between your spirit and your mind.” Therefore, he disliked when he saw that “black people in the film are slowly trying to become like white people.”

During the Q&A, Terah Ehigiator ’18 brought up another issue, that of what he saw as Dear White People’s “black-white binary” when “in reality, anti-blackness is something that exists within minorities as well.”

“[Dear White People] seems to me,” Love said in response, “to be trying to appeal to white people for white love,” meaning that he thought it dealt intentionally with an interracial dynamic between those two groups of blacks and whites.

  • One interesting thing about this film is how it seeks to suppress white diversity. It is true that most media, entertainment, and academia work desperately to deny that the diverse white American peoples are diverse, but it is odd for a film like this, celebrated for its apparent attempt to recognize difficulties in communication and understanding between and by members of different demographic affinity groups, to completely ignore that most such demographics contain worlds of diversity within themselves.

    For example, the fact is that the diverse white Americans span the gamut on IQ. Almost exactly 1/2 of diverse white Americans have an IQ higher than 100, and almost exactly 1/2 of diverse white Americans have an IQ lower than 100. That’s just one kind of diversity that needs to be accounted for if film makers are authentic. Brittle and self-appointed preaching won’t work, so the people making this film seem to be just dabbling in the anti-white narrative, any hint of which is celebrated however whacked out it may be.

    It is actually a form of bigotry to assume that this film was made to fill gaps in understanding. It deliberately misunderstands the diverse white American students, maligns unnecessarily all the diverse white Americans, and creates new levels of division.