Movies / Race

‘Dear White People’ and What Makes A Revolutionary Movie?

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The only movie I want to see this month is Dear White People. I’d meant to see it in July, on a date, when it was being promoted before its release, but my date and I got there too late and they sold our tickets to rush. Most disappointing date everrr (sorry Shelly). Now, I’m in a city that’s small enough and white enough that the film isn’t on a whole lot of people’s radar, and it’s not showing at any of the three or so theaters. It’s on my to-do list, OK?

The feedback I’ve been seeing has been hot and cold. There’s the camp of people who tells viewers the movie is a must see if you want a crash course on race in America. Then there’s the camp that says the film falls short. The feminist media site Bitch Media, concluded the film is “not revolutionary.” And I get it. It’s frustrating as hell. And while the promotional material for Dear White People is clever and well produced, sometimes I watch it and it just seems so damn basic.

We touch on this issue in our “Is It Feminist?” series, but most of the time when a film is written around sociopolitical commentary, it almost always falls short. It’s hard to cover all your blind spots. And the majority of the time, media doesn’t push political consciousness. Often, the relationship is the other way around. So to those upset that Dear White People is not a revolutionary movie, let me just say this: Of COURSE it’s not a revolutionary movie, and here’s why.

In the 70s, the Black Panther Party had a funk band called The Lumpen, who nobody ever heard about because their music was too political and record stores refused to sell it. In the same way, revolutionary movies are a risk.

If Dear White People were a true risk, we probably wouldn’t even hear about it. Fewer people would invest in it in the first place. Theaters would refuse to show it. Producers would be worried about it being too “offensive.” It’s messed up, but it’s true. I can’t think of a time a film exploded because someone took that kind of risk since the porno Deep Throat (and I’m not suggesting that movie was revolutionary by any means). The existence of a film like Dear White People absolutely counts on rich, white, and somewhat self-aware liberals who desperately want to feel good about their self-awareness. It’s important not to spill too many white tears in the making of this film, or it wouldn’t see the light of day. This is why nearly every movie about social issues that’s big enough will find a way to reinforce the status quo.

In the 90s, the film Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd was a popular holiday comedy that was not only hilarious, but was also based on the premise of class and racial inequality. It still remains one of my favorite Christmas movies, despite an awful scene were Aykroyd is in blackface. Remember, in the 90s, we still thought that shit was funny.

In 2005 the Academy Awards upheld Crash as the quintessential modern commentary on race issues, and that film is one of the most underhandedly racist movies I have ever seen.

“I perpetuated the trend of institutionalized violence against black women by sexually assaulting her but now I just saved her from dying, so let’s all just forget about that.”

Just last year, 12 Years a Slave was lauded for its incredible acting, captivating cinematography, moving film score, and controversial stance about how slavery was bad but there were some white people who were nice like Brad Pitt and Benedict Cabbagepatch.

Meanwhile, films that urgently ask pressing questions about race and anti-blackness, films that have tremendous social value, and are well written, and superbly acted and directed by Black people (one such film is Fruitvale Station) go unacknowledged by the Academy, and often even have their agenda questioned. Media created by minorities is routinely undervalued and unrecognized. So it says a lot that this movie has exploded as much as it has. It shows what we’ve come to learn about race since 2005. In 2005, people were still saying “Not to be racist, but.” Even last year, after the Trayvon Martin trial, conversations were dominated around the myth of “black on black crime.” These things, which seem so obvious to some of us now, are being directly addressed in a time when it’s safe enough to address them. And it says a lot that we can make a movie like Dear White People, which, even at its most basic, still manages to point us North.

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5 thoughts on “‘Dear White People’ and What Makes A Revolutionary Movie?

  1. I, too, am relatively certain this won’t be a revolutionary movie, and I agree with everything in your post. I just want to point out that cinema DOES contain a powerful, political strain of artists doing honest work and finding (more than ever before in the medium’s history probably) audiences around the world.

    We have to mention Godard, who’s been financially succeeding with politically engaged cinema since the beginning of the 60’s (and continues, although I haven’t seen the last couple entries). But more recently, China’s 6th generation filmmakers churned out revolutionary (and illegal) work so heart-rending and vicious it captured global audiences (Jia Zhangke’s (THE WORLD, PLATFORM, TOUCH OF SIN, UNKNOWN PLEASURES) my favorite but we’ve also got Wang Xiaoshuai and Li Yang). Malaysia (and maybe kinda Taiwan, whether they want him or not) has Tsai Ming Liang, whose work I consider to be (sometimes) political (although revolutionary may be a stretch) (I’m thinking of STRAY DOGS mostly) but I’m obliged to mention him because he’s considered one of the best filmmakers alive (and he’s politically engaged, so yay!) But then you have to ask yourself if you’re gonna take me at my word because I also consider Weerasethakul to be a political filmmaker (the “resolution” of UNCLE BOONMEE shows his true colors, and SYNDROMES OF A CENTURY doesn’t get a free pass from being explicitly political just because people find it confusing).

    On the doc side: Lixin Fan, Yung Chang.

    Also, lest we think Western political cinema were dead (it does appear sometimes to be close): Pedro Costa and Bruno Dumont! (You can blink and miss the politics in some of his stuff so I would send you to HADEWIJCH (about which you are forbidden before viewing) where no such danger exists and maybe FLANDRES if you like your politics all tied up with your weirdest feels) Soderbergh also flirts with politics but, to my chagrin, seems unwilling to “say what he means” so-to-speak, which may be what you mean by “revolutionary.” (But politically, I’m thinking of BUBBLE and CHE and to some extent GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.)

    Wish I could point to more female filmmakers but I cannot : P Maybe Shi Tou if you’re into Shi Tou.

    I hope Dear White People surprises us in content/comment if not in form.

    • I guess what I mean when I talk about this is “mainstream” media. The same goes with lit and publishing. You can find small presses that serve radical communities, but lots of big time publishers won’t take that same jump without something that’s already established.

  2. I think the movie Dear White People was a great movie. It addressed many different issues that I have personally witnessed but it did lack in certain areas. I do agree with you, controversial movies that address race and other sensitive issues cannot be revolutionary. The movie theaters in the town where I go to school is not playing Dear White People. My boyfriend and I went to a different town to see it. The town was predominantly White and we were literally the only people in the theater and the movie only had two showings even though it just came out this past Friday. Racism is alive and although it is hidden behind laws, media, religion, and political systems it is still prevalent. In many ways the movie angered me but it was completely accurate and telling about today’s society and our young people. Thank you for this article.

  3. As a white person from a relatively small, white area of the world, I had never heard of this movie…. surprise surprise.
    But now I wanna see it, and I think I’m gonna. Thanks for sharing :)

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