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.
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.