Monday, October 27, 2014

nerds in hipster-nerds’ clothing and other refreshing representations

Like college students themselves, Dear White People is a little awkward, sometimes confusing and sometimes didactic, but full of fresh ideas and completely endearing. The setting is very specific: a fictional Ivy League campus where “talented tenth” African-American students try to carve a niche for themselves among the school’s (white) traditions.

Winchester University looks suspiciously like UCLA.
Each student is assigned to a different house, meaning dorm, but also something bigger than a dorm. From what I remember of my tour of UC Santa Cruz, it had a similar system, where each residence hall was kind of a college-within-a-college, and each had its own vibe and evoked passionate responses among the students. Kind of like the “houses” in Paris is Burning, except Winchester University is nothing like UC Santa Cruz or a drag ball.

I dunno. I went to a big public university that technically had “theme floors,” but the only way you’d know that the seventh floor of Dykstra Hall was the “international” floor was if you accidentally wandered into the study hall on the night they showed Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.

Two colors: Coco and the president's daughter.
The politics of housing assignments is one of the slightly confusing elements of Dear White People, but just go with it. While the world of the film stays wisely specific, the movie sometimes trips over itself trying to capture all the views on race that exist within this small container. There’s Sam, the biracial radical; Troy, the alpha striver who is dating the school president’s white daughter; Coco, the girl trying to conceal her South-Side-of-Chicago roots beneath a straight Indian weave; and Lionel, a gay geek who doesn’t feel like he fits anywhere.

And of course there are the white students—the president’s asshole son who all but dons a pointy hood, and the sensitive film student who encourages Sam to embrace all aspects of herself, especially the part of herself that enjoys sleeping with him. The two white newspaper students who recruit Lionel to write an exposĂ© on campus race relations would be liberal heroes in most movies (which are often made by former-journalism-student types), but here they’re not above putting their hands in the Afro Lionel hides beneath and offhandedly telling him he’s only “technically” black.

Lionel gives good side eye. Even though the movie sorta implies that white people need to stop saying side eye.
I didn’t always get Coco’s M.O., as she plotted some kind of double-agent thing with a reality TV producer. I cringed when the evil school president literally said “Racism is over.” (Dear People of Color: Most white people know better than to say things like that, even if they think it. Instead they ascribe racism to the margins, meaning groups of people that don’t include them. Klan members, Republicans, rogue cops, etc. Then they can be anti-racist without having to work on themselves. Uh, ourselves.) During a cafeteria scene in which different tables of students represent different stances on race, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching an innovative stylization or we were supposed to think this was an actual conversation actual students were having across a crowded room.

Coco is not totally sure why she's putting on a blonde wig.
Some of this is the product of newbie filmmaking—I think this is writer/director Justin Simien’s first feature. But some of it is appropriately indicative of the complications of racial identity itself. Coco doesn’t always know exactly what Coco’s doing either.

As the movie rolls on, the four main characters begin to reject their roles as mouthpieces and slide toward more individualized identities—while still acknowledging the need for a powerful, loud cultural voice. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in a movie or in life.

There aren’t many movies about race. There aren’t many movies aimed at mainstream audiences featuring more than two black characters (meaning that we rarely understand that there might be more than one or two opinions in “the black community”). The title Dear White People is genius. White people can subconsciously think, Oh, cool, it’s about me, just like everything else is.

Black Student Union (the Asian girl is there for the snacks).
Also genius: Tyler James Williams’ performance as Lionel. I’m just realizing—now that I click on his IMDb page—that he’s the kid from Everybody Hates Chris, which I always liked. I guess he was part of the reason. Lionel spends a lot of time looking at his computer while eavesdropping on conversations, and Williams manages to convey an entire character with just his facial expressions (which I guess is what film actors do, but a lot of times it’s lost on me). He is discouraged and downtrodden, but also smarter than most of the people who exclude him. Nevertheless, he’s not a classic stuffed-in-a-locker nerd. He dresses hipster-nerd-chic to conceal his actual alienation. He resents his invisibility but also relishes it and uses it. He’s funny and ironic, and when provoked, he can rally his people.

On our way out of the parking structure, AK and I ranked our favorite characters. Lionel was definitely first, followed by Coco, then Sam, with boring Troy a distant fourth. We were both charmed by Lionel, but AK was almost buoyantly charmed.

“I related to him so much,” she said. “The queer kid of color who doesn’t really fit in anywhere but can kind of pull it together in a pinch? I mean, I’m not into Star Trek, but—”

“You were more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald nerd,” I said.

Salinger side eye.
As a middle school kid, AK subscribed to the New Yorker and devoured J.D. Salinger. I was suddenly doubly happy for Lionel’s existence on screen. Anyone who’s ever felt invisible—for reasons cultural and/or personal—needs to see themselves reflected in the world. I remember how grateful I felt when Take Shelter so accurately conveyed what it’s like to be sane and crazy at the same time. It’s why we need art, especially art that reflects the multiplicity of human experience. So I’m grateful to Justin Siemen and the Indiegogo funders who put a little extra spring in my girl’s step as we left the theater.

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