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Dear white people…we’ll just assume you have tickets. November 2, 2014

Posted by Erin Ptah in Erin Watches, Meta.
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Went to see Dear White People in the theater, with some people from a local anti-racist group — for reference, it was about 5-6 of us white, 3 black, and 2 Asian.

We got seats in the theater concessions area afterward to talk about it. A similar-sized group, but with more black/brown people, ended up sitting next to us…and one of the staffers came up and asked if they had tickets. (This isn’t in the lobby, this is *past* the point where they *take* your ticket.) Our much-whiter group had been hanging around longer — none of us had bought any food, either — and still, nobody ever asked if we had a right to be there.

So that was topical.

As for the movie — for reference, here’s a trailer:

We liked a lot of things about it. Were meh about others. Spoilers follow:

It was funny. The jokes, when there were jokes, could be really good.

There’s a point when one of our heroes (Lionel, gay black guy with magnificent hair) goes to a meeting of the Black Student League looking for allies —
Black student #1: “What can we do? There’s not that many of us.”
Black student #2: “The Latino Student League is in the next room.”
Conspicuously Asian student: “And the Asian-American league is down the hall.”
All the black students: *look at conspicuously Asian student*
Conspicuously Asian student: “…You guys have better snacks.”

Or, when our main character (Sam, the voice of the titular Dear White People radio show) is being confronted by her not-boyfriend about how she presents herself:
Not-Boyfriend: “You’ve got a thing for Taylor Swift. You try to hide it, but my Mac pics up your Mac’s library.”
Sam, cursing under her breath: “I was so careful!”

And Sam describing her recurring “Cosby Show” nightmare:
“My hair was so straight…my sweaters, so big.”

[The actress’s delivery is seriously perfect at everything.]

And the experiences of the black characters in general got a lot of “that’s me, that is exactly my life” from the black people in our viewing group. So that’s a plus. All the characters are treated with immense sympathy — you never feel like the narrative is making fun of them, even when they’re maybe not making the smartest or healthiest of moves.

So there’s all that. But the movie’s message does get kind of…muddled, by the end, in a couple of ways.

Here’s one. Background: our main character spends most of the story campaigning against an administrative move that would randomize housing choices, effectively breaking up the historically-black residence house in which she lives. And the main romantic subplot involves her insisting that her relationship with a white classmate is just about sex.

At the end of the film, the administration walks back its move. Success! When the not-boyfriend congratulates Sam about this, though, her reaction is a subdued “Actually, I was thinking about moving out. Getting an apartment off campus.” They walk off holding hands.

(Extra pathos level: she’s also spent the movie stressing over her [white] dad’s health issues. He’s hospitalized during the course of the story. Comes home safe during the end, but it’s been making her regret all those times when she was in elementary school and didn’t want to be seen with him.)

And, like…this is not to come down on Sam as a character, or anything. And it’s definitely not to criticize anybody who moves in with a white love interest IRL.

But in context — the movie doesn’t set itself up as being a look at our heroine’s conflicted racial identity, and it sure wasn’t marketed that way. It’s marketed as “snarky black college student heroically strikes back against racism.” A classic scrappy-underdog vs. The System throwdown.

And when the emotional fallout of that story is “the underdog’s fight wasn’t objectively as important as it seemed, it was at least partly her acting out her own identity issues, and in the end she walks away from the thing she was fighting for in order to be with the [white male] boyfriend who had a better read on her [black/mixed female] issues better than she did,” that’s…eeeehhh. You know?

The fast-paced action climax of the film involves one of those crazy-racist “dress up in blackface and act out all the worst stereotypes you can” parties. During the credits, we get photos from a bunch of these parties that have been held at IRL colleges. In the post-movie discussion, one of us (data point: an Asian guy) made the specific comment that he was glad they showed those, because he hadn’t been sure if this was a real thing, or something made up for the story.

Which speaks to the idea that, even with the message softpedaling, this is still ahead of the racial consciousness of mainstream America (and definitely ahead of mainstream white America)

And if the softpedaling was what it had to do in order to drag the rest of it into the mainstream — I’m not trying to say that isn’t a net positive! You don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

It’s kind of depressing that they had to softpedal it at all. Sharper would’ve been better.

Then again, on the list of “things that are depressing about the state of race relations in the US,” this is nowhere near the top.

So. I mostly recommend it. Meh parts aside, it’s still a solid story, and, like I said, it’s funny. Go see it! If you haven’t been paying enough attention to realize that blackface parties are a thing that real white people do, definitely go see it, take your friends — you’ll get bonus consciousness-raising, absolutely free.

Everyone else…after seeing it, maybe come back here and tell me what you thought. Did you have the same “eeeehhh” moments? Are there parts you would change? How well do you think it balances out as-is? Talk to me.

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