There is a sense, a feeling of impending tragedy, or at least the idea that some messed up sh*t is about to go down, at the start of Justin Simien’s Dear White People. We hear the news reports of an altercation on a university campus, and our thoughts – well, the thoughts of those of us who attended colleges where questionable sh*t went down that sparked student protests of one form or another – drift back to our school days or remain locked in the moment, when such reports can involve the mass confusion and hysteria associated with school shootings.
Simien isn’t barreling down that dangerous open road; instead, he’s trafficking in the no less important (one-way) issue of race relations in the closed societies of university campuses. Time and again, during the promotion of the film, someone has spoken about the plight of “black faces in white places” with the point being a focus on the few (sometimes very few) black faces in those very white places.
Almost immediately, I latched onto Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies as a critical and spiritual remix sound scape for the film and its characters. The album, down to the sequencing of the songs, offers lyric commentary on the situations and perspectives of the richly diverse cast of characters caught up in the microcosmic social tinderbox of the fictional Ivy League college that serves as Simien’s educational plantation.
“I’m Diggin’ You”
Right off the bat, Dear White People struts its stuff, making the case for a degree of racial pride that might seem at odds with the contemporary post-racial fictional Ivy League realm it resides in.
“Sit back, relax, and listen to the 8-track / I’ll dig you like an old soul record,” was how Meshell kicked things off on the album proper. Of course, we had already been introduced to her, thanks to the first single, “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” with its boldly funky alternative embrace of “doing almost anything” for sexual pleasure/power (more on that to come). The multi-layered instrumentation of “I’m Diggin’ You” copped a feel off old soul, but it slide underneath those outer garments in search of tight smooth skin, stirring the pulse in all of those erogenous zones.
But it’s not the sweaty heat of passion that caught my attention and made for this critical remix. “I’m Diggin’ You” and Dear White People captured a mood for me that took me back to my school days, which predate both releases, but possibly sets the stage for each. I was one of those black faces wandering around an Ivy League white space (The University of Pennsylvania) in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Penn, during my undergraduate years (1987-1991) had its share of racial conflict, still familiar apparently to undergrads today.
We had a black residence hall, black student groups, black fraternities and sororities, and a white campus that was uncertain about how to deal with us. I still recall conversations that sounded like coded exchanges that would eventually morph into political correct speak – that naive tongue dialect aiming for non-offensiveness. Concerns ran rampant over the idea that black students would self-segregate rather than blend away into the larger melting pot. I had more than my share of late-night bull sessions with white roommates and friends over why such black spaces were necessary and whether or not we would ever reach the stage when they wouldn’t be any longer.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a pro-black militant who broadcasts an underground show called “Dear White People” that puts the mainstream kids and the minorities alike on notice, about tokenism, cultural appropriation, interpersonal relations, and personal space (the desire of white folks to touch the hair of black folks). It is sad that society continues to respond to the anger and frustration of such commentary without stepping back to recognize potential for pride and empowerment. Sam gets reduced to the stereotypical angry black woman – a phrase thrown around recently at Shondra Rhimes (Scandal & How to Get Away With Murder creator) in the pages of The New York Times, no less.
What I hear in Meshell though, from back in the day, is the pride. Maybe it was because we, black folks listening to her, knew she was only speaking to us. She needed “some black on black love, baby” and was pointing out that we all did, which was a more exclusive discussion among us.
“If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” / “Dred Loc”
Several characters throughout the film and even in the larger, unseen history among the large cast, succumb to the temptation of infidelity. Dear White People shows that no debate about race can ever be separated from issues of sexuality. The seeming lack on value placed on “black on black love” and the much-maligned hyper-sexualized dynamics between black men and white women rear their ugly heads, but what is missing, is the element of control that Meshell allows herself, as the “voice” from “Boyfriend.”
“Don’t mean no harm / I just like what I see / and it ain’t my fault if he wants me. / Got what I wanted and the feeling was right,” Meshell proclaims, and it is a sorry state of affairs in Dear White People that nobody gets this kind of release. There is so much societal weight in these bags, it’s a wonder the straps haven’t broken yet. “You’re upset ’cause you’re one stuck up b*tch,” is a line that could refer to everybody on Simien’s campus. Did the sexual revolution ever reach the plantation?
This indigo mood could move, suite-like into the track “Dred Loc” (although you have to leap-frog another song along the way). The call here is for more of that black love to rain down on a black male lover. In the world of Plantation Lullabies, black men have it worse and need to “rest” their weary heads while she runs her fingers through their dreds. In Dear White People, Sam is the character who struggles mightily, but she would also be most concerned – internally – because she lacks the dreds (and the symbolic identity they confer). Unlike the man who stands in the land where life began, who doesn’t question himself or his blackness, Sam’s journey is all about confronting the questions about what it means to be black, which seem even more prevalent for the few black faces in this white place.
“Step Into the Projects”
Rather than stepping into the projects, for Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris), a publicity-hungry striver seeking any opportunity to make a new name for herself, the only thing that matters is getting out of the projects and out from under the expectations of what project living signifies. Coco denies her ghetto fabulous name, any desires for “black on black love, baby” and proves willing to commodify her self and any sense of ideals or beliefs to make it. Selling out, in this world, is defined by becoming a hyper-real version of some mythic black persona that mixes and merges black and white elements.
The lack of pride, again, is obvious when compared to Meshell’s project dreams. It is in the projects, where Meshell “found love.” That is not to say that pain, and lies and illusions don’t exist in Meshell’s street-level reality – “hidden in the blackness of our skin” – but she espouses the notion that it all comes down to “black on black love.”
That’s a no-win game for Coco. The white girls on the hunt can have their “Denzel”; she prefers a “Gosling,” but what happens when Prince “Gosling” doesn’t come riding up on a white horse? Can you find love when you feel like you’re slumming (and what happens when your black lover feels and treats you the same way)?
“Soul on Ice”
Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the handsome and privileged scion of a university dean (Dennis Haysbert) with big plans for the future, and a ready-made piece of arm candy in the form of the daughter of the university president is the natural-born embodiment of being/having your “soul on ice.” He is the establishment brother, hip and genial, striding on either side of the street, no longer striving, because the previous generation already laid the groundwork. He can be the “big man” in all the ways implied, but what if the standards for beauty and success aren’t what truly matter? Can this brother turn his back on it all and walk away?
As much as Sam verbalizes her struggles for identity and peace, Troy keeps his locked behind all kids of doors. He indulges with mind and mood altering in the bathroom (when he’s supposed to be showering) and watches Star Trek when no one’s around. He doesn’t want to be the “big man,” maybe just his own man, but that can’t happen unless he walks away from the big house. In the song, Meshell berates such brothers for letting the sisters go by, yet Troy has truly turned his back on himself more so than any woman, black or white.
“When you want me, baby, yeah, just call / call me,” Meshell sings, but this isn’t the same-old begging and pleading we’re used to in soul songs. Meshell is defiant and assertive. You can call her, and even though she will rush right over, you never get the sense that she’s waiting by the phone like some love-starved groupie. She will head over because you need her. She’s all about talking and being a soothing presence for you.
This is the kind of dynamic that Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an eager writer, but unfortunate outcast, even among the fractured black “community” certainly longs for. Lionel desires to find his place and a lover who recognizes the need he can fulfill, but he’s more than aware that he doesn’t fit any of the prescribed stereotypes. He’s not black enough for the black folks or the white folks, and to top it off, he’s gay, but he develops what he imagines to be a real love jones for the editor of the campus paper. It is romantic, although as with most romances, an illusion.
“You can be king for the day / I’ll be the queen / let me treat you that way,” is a lyric that Lionel would have proudly spoken to anyone willing to listen and appreciate him in that way. His emerging identity is less about sexual satisfaction; in fact, Lionel surprisingly takes a stand in terms of race that will hopefully (ideally) prepare him for greater fulfillment down the road in the “warm rays of sun / you and me” that Meshell foresees.
“Outside Your Door”
Moving away from the four primary protagonists, we bump into Reggie (Marque Richardson), Sam’s tech guru and right-hand man who, not so secretly pines for her. He is down for the struggle, her struggle, but he puts up a hard front, to mask his longing. The thing you come to realize about Reggie is that he will never become the king of the movement, the partner able to share the throne with Sam, and therein is his weakness, the expression of his willingness to wait and play bodyguard for Sam. But he wants her heart because it is the only prize he believes he can earn on his own.
But he sits outside Sam’s proverbial door, waiting for her to talk to him. Like Lionel, he’s pining, but he’s got an air of cool and collectedness that belies any insecurity. I would argue that actually Reggie is the one case where Simien’s writing fails him a bit. All of that pop psychology I laid out for you in the previous paragraph about Reggie is nothing more than my interpretative read of the character. There is precious little to the character as written or presented onscreen. Richardson doesn’t coax any more out of the card stock Simien drew him up on.
Meshell’s lyric narrator in the song tells us much more about herself, the longing she feels, the desire to connect, the lengths she is willing to go – “one day I even sat through a rain shower” – and here, the heady romanticism recalls Lionel from the previous song, but somehow, it feels like a better fit for Reggie. The longing has a more hopeless spiral to it, befitting a character with nothing to fall back on. No real dreams. At least Meshell gives him that much.
Simien’s not afraid to give the white folks some play, but he keeps it real, within the context he’s established by narratively (and emotionally) tethering his white characters to one of the black protagonists. It is a neat and quite plain reversal on most black characters in mainstream films – even in the black and white buddy movies, the black character can’t quite seem to exist on his/her own without their white partner vouching for their value.
So, along comes Gabe (Justin Dobies), the teaching assistant for Sam’s film media class who also happens to be the boyfriend she keeps on the DL. What kind of strong proud black leader can afford to be seen cavorting with the enemy? Whereas the truly progressive-minded white guy like Gabe can’t understand why it matters whether Sam’s lover is black or white? That’s not exactly true, because as the white progressive-leaning voice, Gabe knows the rules of the game, but he’s the one with seemingly nothing to lose.
That’s why it makes sense to imagine hearing Gab imploring Sam to go to the “Picture Show” with him. “I want to hold your hand,” he would say, not quite obliviously, “take you to a picture show. I want to hold your hand.” And the idea of him repeating the “hold your hand” line would recall The Beatles, but Gab, being the hip white dude that he is would be familiar with Meshell and would want Sam to give him props for the reference.
Yet, it is Gabe who offers one of the most emotionally frank statements of the film in a late exchange with Sam when he reveals the depth of his feelings for her. He tells her that part of why she is so important to him is that she constantly argues with him, about everything and he’s well aware of the fact that she’s smarter than he is. What man has ever said that to his woman?
Gabe is “a hopeless romantic” and as the story progresses, we can see that talk of love will, indeed make him fall. The question that matters most to him is whether or not Sam will grab his hand and tumble along with him.
Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), daughter of the school’s president and helpless pawn in the game between her father and Dean Fairbanks (Haysbert), has swallowed the blue pill, believing that she is in love with Troy and there’s nothing left but the happy ending. She has faith in the illusion that they would make the perfect power couple, both in the moment at the top of the university’s social order and inevitably later in life.
It is not hard to imagine the lyrics-turned-dialogue – “Tell me, what is a girl to do / I try so very hard, to try to please you / even though I know you really don’t care / or is it that you find your feelings too hard to share” – in the mouth of Sofia, followed by an attempt to entice and arouse Troy with stereotypical fantasies of black one white love. It all smacks of desperation. What happens when Troy leaves the plantation? One day, she will have to wonder – if they continue down the path – is what they have a truly “sweet love” or just a tired old game. Meshell spoke of her love “being far stronger than pride” but it is doubtful that Sofia can honestly say the same thing at this terribly early stage in her life.
“Two Lonely Hearts (On the Subway)”
The inevitable cataclysm occurs on campus and in the aftermath, what?
Of all the characters, I place my hope on Lionel reborn, activated, seeking communion in the future. The sci-fi gay nerd may, one day, find his match on the subway, riding off into that future together where there will be black folks like him, proudly out there, waiting, “accompanied by some STRICTLY ROOTS as we venture / it’s just nice to be near you.”
“Singing the blues on the subway train,” is how Meshell ends her Plantation Lullabies, but that final ride is headed towards a beautifully hopeful (and funky) sunset. Will that be the case for Lionel, Sam, and the rest of the characters from Dear White People? Simien doesn’t provide a pat answer. And just like the song fades out, so too does the movie and the world for that matter.
Indeed. (tt stern-enzi)