By Ed Rampell
The most racially charged movie in 25 years will be released in theaters around the same time a Ferguson grand jury is expected to announce its findings in the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
Scheduled to open October 17, Dear White People culminates with the big screen’s most intense racial confrontation on a film set in contemporary America since Do the Right Thing. And police play a role in the clash as they did in Spike Lee’s 1989 drama.
Writer/director Justin Simien’s Dear White People has won Sundance and Palm Springs Film Festival awards and is spearheading the cinematic surge of black-themed films that propelled 12 Years a Slave to Best Picture, acting and writing Oscars last year.
The film deals with race relations in today’s supposedly “post-racial” America.
Simien’s sophisticated satire takes place at Winchester University, a fictitious Ivy League school where only 2 percent of the student body is black.
Biracial Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is a strident, conflicted leader. “Sam” is also a film student who parodies D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation and DJ. She delivers caustic commentaries over campus airwaves, such as: “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two,” and, she adds tartly, drug dealers don’t count.
In an apparently surprising upset Sam is elected president of the historically black residence hall Armstrong/Parker House, defeating her more accommodationist opponent, Troy (the buff Brandon Bell), who represents the establishment. Troy’s father is Winchester’s dean (Dennis Haysbert, who played President/Senator David Palmer in FX’s 24 TV series and Nelson Mandela in 2007’s The Color of Freedom).
To compound matters Troy dumped Sam in favor of white-bread Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), daughter of Winchester’s patronizing president Herbert Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen,) who asserts: “Racism is over in America. The only people thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.”
Sam opposes the administration’s “Randomization of Housing Act,” which would end Armstrong/Parker’s status as an African American sanctum. In an uproarious scene Fletcher’s lily-white son Kurt (Kyle Gallner)—editor of Winchester’s humor magazine Pastiche—and his Caucasian cohorts are exiled from the hall’s dining room.
Sporting cinema’s biggest Afro since the Blaxploitation era, gay, nerdy, misfit Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, who played young Chris Rock in the 2005-2009 sitcom Everybody Hates Chris) goes undercover to expose Sam and Winchester’s black milieu and become the Winchester Bugle’s sole African American staff reporter.
Hair conking, blue eye contact-wearing, Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris from AMC’s Mad Men TV series) hosts Pastiche’s annual Halloween party with an “unleash your inner Negro” theme: Caucasians costumed as “ghetto” caricatures party in blackface, Afro wigs, gangsta rapper bling, etc. When Sam and others at Armstrong/ Parker House hear of the racist revelry, they rush to confront the minstrel-like merrymakers. All hell breaks loose in American cinema’s most powerful contemporary racial row since that riot at Sal’s pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
After an LA Film Festival gala screening last June, Simien said that while writing Dear White People “the Trayvon Martin thing happened, I saw the whole post-racial bubble really bursting. Then for me the script became about… What does it mean to be black now? Is there still racism?”
I asked Simien and Thompson about the state of race relations in 2014 America.
“I think we’re probably doing better than we ever have before,but there’s a long way to go,” Simien said. “And there’s a bit of discrepancy between what I think some people hope and think we are and where we actually are. It’s not even just really a black issue. . . . The representation alone is just so far off, it’s so out of whack with what America actually looks and feels like.”
“I don’t know,” Thompson answered. “I feel like we’re in a space where we want to feel like we’re post-racial until we’re at a standstill about talking. Until there’s these eruptions, like the Trayvon Martin case; like what happened with the Clippers. Then we’re in opposition and have heated conversations where we feel like we can’t see eye-to-eye. Quite frankly, we’re in a dangerous place… If we could have conversations a little more often we’d be in a better space.”
Asked if she had role models for Sam, Thompson said: “Yeah, definitely Angela Davis … I got to hear her speak recently, which was like a dream come true… also Kathleen Cleaver, who … came to the set to visit us on this movie I’m doing now… Selma, about the voting rights of 1965… I play Diane Nash… a member of SNCC and CORE. She was a nonviolent organizer… one of the key players in the bus rides that happened in Montgomery and Nashville.”
Selma co-stars Oprah Winfrey as activist Annie Lee Cooper; Tim Roth as Gov. George Wallace; Tom Wilkinson as LBJ; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as attorney Fred Gray (who represented Rosa Parks and King); and hip-hop artist Common as Freedom Rider James Bevel, whom Nash married.
Thompson added: “So we’re talking about the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and when they were scouting locations Ava DuVernay happened upon all these signs in parts of the South that said: ‘If you’re having trouble voting’ -- they were hotlines you could call. And she was sort of like: ‘So not that much has changed,’ you know?”
Simien declared: “The point of the movie really is to start a conversation,” which Dear White People seems certain to do.