by Guest Contributor Mario Fitzgerald
In one of the many footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior opines:
“Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.”
Through the mind of Yunior, Junot Diaz expresses a core truth about writing: Despite being a tool of dissent for justice and equality, writing is also a powerful and thoroughly successful method of erasure, revision, and domination.
Through his first feature film, Dear White People, director Justin Simien has demonstrated how film can similarly be a tool for either justice or domination. Through the characters of Helmut West, a reality television show producer and Sam White, an independent documentary filmmaker, Justin Simien dramatizes the different ways in which the film industry has responded to racism and white supremacy.
Helmut West drifts in and out of the film searching for “conflicts” on the campus of Winchester University from which he can create a reality television show. Despite the title of the film directing viewers’ attention towards the many documented micro-aggressions of White characters towards the film’s Black characters, West is a Black man.
His presence raises a critique against the constant search for anti-Black racist acts committed by White people rather than manifestations of White supremacist thinking which, as bell hooks has so eloquently written, operates within us all.
In acknowledging the manifestations of White supremacist thinking, the actions of characters such as Coco become more understandable as she pursues possible areas in which she, as a black woman, may actually benefit from White supremacy and its valuations of physical beauty. A focus on White supremacist thinking can also reveal the problematic nature of actions from characters such as Reggie. As White supremacist thinking is connected to patriarchal thinking, Reggie’s manipulation of the Armstrong Parker House’s voting system in order to thrust Sam into a position of power that she never wished to attain is more easily recognized as patriarchal and subsequently challenged and resisted by an anti-racist, black feminist lens. One would still be able to acknowledge that the most powerful characters, such as President Fletcher, are indeed white.
However, a focus on White supremacist thinking will reveal how individuals of all identities stand to benefit from various aspects of the status quo and, thus, may actually have a vested interest in upholding certain oppressive systems while struggling against others.
West is also possibly the most perceptive character in the film, perhaps even more so than Sam, as he quickly identifies which people around him will easily fit into a consumable racial stereotype, be it the “angry black activist,” the “ghetto black woman,” or the overtly bigoted white person. However, he uses his perceptive abilities to further a part of the film industry that profits off of racism, and so West seeks to exploit racial confrontations he finds on campus rather than to challenge them.
Juxtaposed against West is Sam White, a young, passionate filmmaker and campus activist intent on exposing the contradictions of society, starting with her college campus.
Through her campus radio program, “Dear White People” and her first short film of white faced white people losing their collective minds over the election of Barack Obama as president, Sam attempts to expose the racist contradictions of the world through direct and didactic methods. Such methods draw both ire and adoration from Sam’s peers as well as the attention of the Winchester’s President and Dean of Students.
After facing the pressures to conform to the demands of her peers as well as the university administrators, Sam eventually falls back on her identity as a filmmaker, and with the help of her boyfriend, Justin, Sam embraces the role of an “anarchist filmmaker.” As such she presents the contradictions of society as problematic while simultaneously avoiding offering any solutions leaving that task for her viewers, as displayed in the final moments of her second short film documenting the fall out from a campus “black face” party in which she ceases to complete her last “Dear White People” edict. In this way, Sam, as an “anarchist filmmaker” challenges rather than exploits the racism displayed on Winchester’s campus.
It seems safe to say that Justin Simien, himself, has set the task for himself of following the “anarchist” tradition of filmmaking, a tradition marked by the questioning of society’s manners, formalities, and figures of authority in order to unveil the truths hidden by such facades.
DWP exposes the contradictions of the United States – especially its founding freedoms ingrained with racism and white supremacy – while also exposing our own personal and all too human contradictions.
However, Simien does not provide an easy ending glorifying the possibilities of the film industry to confront and challenge racism. Rather at the end of the film, it is Helmut West – not Sam – who sits in front of President Fletcher pitching his idea of using the conflicts of the university’s “race riot” to create a reality television show which will ultimately provide profits to both the university and television studio for which West works.
Therefore, though Justin Simien’s own first effort has opened to quite
some success as has the works of filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, and Ryan Coogler, Dear White People still acknowledges that the works of Hollywood studios and reality television shows capitalizing off of and profiting from stereotypes of black Americans still mainly control and define the narratives of black Americans.
The struggle continues, even in film, for in the words of Toni Morrison:
“Racism will disappear when it’s, A, no longer profitable, and no longer psychologically useful. And when that happens, it’ll be gone. But at the moment, people make a lot of money off of it, pro and con.”
Mario Fitzgerald is currently a Pre – K Assistant, Library Aide, and aspiring writer hoping to follow the paths set forth by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison living in Charlotte, NC.
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