Finding the flaws in flawed reviews of ‘Dear White People’

Dear White People

FilmScene — Nov. 13 through 20

A talk-back discussion of Dear White People will take place at FilmScene on Sat, Nov 15 after the film’s 2:30 p.m. screening.

“Having something important to say,” opines The New Yorker’s Richard Brody in his review of Dear White People, “isn’t the same thing as making an important movie, or even a good one.” While Brody found the film to be a too-tame series of “epigrammatic, calculatedly provocative monologues” meant to “simulate” controversy instead of actually causing it, for the most part, critics, audiences and the bulk of the non-racist internet love Dear White People.

However, in reading reviews of the film, the word that’s popped up most often, despite its 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is “flaw.” Which is fine. Dear White People — like every single thing ever made by humans ever — is flawed, and a film review is the perfect place to talk about that. But much of the critical conversation surrounding the film seems predicated on holding director Justin Simien to a “twice as good”-type standard not often applied to first-time filmmakers. Dear White People is good. It’s really damn good, especially for a mainstream, crowdfunded feature film debut. It doesn’t have to be fucking Roots, man.

What I love about Dear White People is that watching it felt like watching any other mid-budget dramedy focused on people my age, with the CRUCIAL difference being that my gut reaction to these characters was “Ohhhh. Dude, I feel you,” instead of the sort of epic eyeroll that’s sent my eyeballs skittering across many a floor (See: Girls, Garden State and anything starring Zooey Deschanel). Unlike Brody, a middle-aged white man for whom the film is not radical enough, I don’t need Dear White People to be my Moses, some Great Black Hope, parting the Racist Sea to give me safe passage to a promised land.

If there’s enough room for Newsies, The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York without critics attempting to hold one to the standard of the other, then there should be room for Dear White People and An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and School Daze. Attempting to hold the film to an impossibly nebulous standard of “passionate rationalism,” calling it “careful” and “bland,” avoids unpacking the very real issues found in the film.

The first time I met a fictional black character in whom I saw myself completely, I was a 26-year-old grad student. So I’m pleased to have Sam White, the film’s central character, as a nuanced representation of black femininity to whom I can relate. Still, though I appreciate any well done subversion of the tired “tragic mulatta” trope as much as the next person, I wanted nothing more than for Dear White People to avoid falling into the same old colorist traps. Even as it deftly critiques collegiate blackface parties and addresses issues of assimilation and internalized racism, less-visibly-of-European-descent, darker brown women essentially act as props for White’s chorus of back-up militants.

Colorism and a wobbly ending aside, I’m probably going to watch Dear White People a bunch more times. It hits all of the high notes that I recognize from the last 12 years of my life: being a middle-class black undergraduate on a predominantly white campus, not fitting in with some black people, not fitting in with some white people, racist on-campus events and an entire constellation of microaggressions that range from irritating to wounding. Despite Brody’s assertion that Dear White People lacks “serious political confrontation,” its depictions of the quotidian feel political and politically necessary because they are so incredibly rare.

But maybe, as Brody describes the characters of Dear White People, I’m just a “walking Post-It of issues.” I have new hair. Well, for the past two weeks, I’ve had new hair. They’re called “crochet braids” and they’re an unnatural shade of red and, for some reason, their very existence has provoked myriad intrusions: nonconsensual touching; impolite questions (“Is that your real hair?”); and attempts at humor that make me cringe (“Hey, it’s Carmen Miranda!”). Fun fact: I totally went to the Carmen Miranda Museum in Rio de Janeiro once. Know what I learned there? Carmen Miranda, early in her career, wore blackface.