Stuffy, orchestral music plays as the camera pans over a sun-drenched set of venerable looking buildings. Students mill about. Then, suddenly, a darkened shot of a woman's mouth speaking at a microphone cuts in. Her words, spoken with trenchant bitterness, overlay an image of several well-dressed preps, one of whom is black.
"Dear white people," the girl intones, "breaking news: the amount of black friends required to not seem racist has now been raised to two. Sorry, your weave man Tyrone does not count."
Minus a previous skit included apparently only to take shots at Tyler Perry, this sequence effectively opens the trailer for "Dear White People," a new film by filmmaker Justin Simien, which apparently is struggling to get itself shown in theaters. With a title like that, and a script that includes lines like the one above, we can't say we're surprised.
Nevertheless, apparently there's been quite a response to the concept, so much so that Mr. Simien himself appeared on CNN today to discuss his film and explain what it is he hopes to accomplish:
Now, if Mr. Simien's complaints about how the media paints all black people with a broad brush ring true to you, you're not alone. In this author's view, it's time for an end to the demeaning stereotypes that get perpetuated by rap, most of the programming on BET, and any movie with a Wayans in the credits. However, Simien's complaints are relatively vague, so to get an idea of what he's actually upset about, we took a look at the trailer for the film itself. If you're wondering whether the rest of it is like the brief excerpt we quoted above, strap yourselves in:
So apparently the messages that aren't getting out regarding black culture and its tenets, according to Simien, include such ideas as "Black people can't be racist" and "There's no need for a 'Dear Black People.' Cops, Fox News, and reality TV let us know exactly what you think of us." Setting aside whether those statements make sense, if we wanted to hear them, we question whether a movie needs to be made, considering that Al Sharpton says this sort of thing on a regular basis on his show. Did Simien just forget to subscribe to MSNBC when he ordered cable?
Now, you might be thinking, what if those aren't actually the film's messages? What if it's really a satire of that kind of two-dimensional thinking? Trust us, it isn't. How do we know? Because we read the creator's more detailed explanation for his motives in the Huffington Post (emphasis added):
There are some defensive knee jerk reactions to the phrase "Dear White People" and I get it. No one wants to be called racist, and some folks are still waking up from the fantasy that having a Black president means America has somehow become "Post-Racial." (By the way, if the "birther movement" and the tragedy involving Trayvon Martin hasn't sobered you up yet, just check out the Youtube comments section for the Dear White People trailer).
The truth is, my film really isn't about "white racism" or racism at all. As I see it racism is systemic and is inherently reflected in any honest story about life as a minority in this country. What my film is about however is identity. It's about the difference between how the mass culture responds to a person because of their race and who they understand themselves to truly be.
I'm a tall, occasionally funny, and perhaps baby-faced Black man. There is a distinct difference between my interactions with someone whose closest cultural cue to what I am is Will Smith (if I'm lucky) and those with someone who's last impression of a Black person involved watching an episode of Cops or even worse Maury Povich.
These impressions easily turn into the way I'm treated, the level of respect I'm given, expectations placed on me and in some cases opportunities denied. (I could expound, but that's probably better served in a different post. Or better yet just read the brilliant "Who's Afraid of Post-Black America" by Touré).
This is a radical new perspective on what it is to be black? The insincere disavowal of any desire to make this about "racism" notwithstanding, it sounds like typical MSNBC racial liberalism dressed up with a slightly more preppy lilt. Frankly, we'd rather hear from the kid in the trailer wearing the sweater vest who gets mocked for not being an expert on black culture just because he dresses a certain way, or from the black frat member who gets told he "doesn't count" as a black friend because he spends time with white students. Color us old-fashioned, but we prefer people who defy segregation to people who embrace it.
So to paraphrase the trailer, dear Justin Simien, breaking news: the number of perspectives on race that must be represented in a movie in order for it to not seem like a hackneyed piece of racially biased propaganda has been raised to two. Sorry, Toure does not count.