Monday, October 27, 2014

Black Man Talk: Dear White People

by Steven Boone and Odie "Odienator" Henderson

(The following is an E-mail conversation between Big Media Vandalism founder Steven Boone and Big Media Vandalism's proprietor Odie Henderson. It is the latest in the Black Man Talk series. Other installments include American Gangsters, Tyler Perry, Django Unchained, 42, Lee Daniels' The Butler and 12 Years a Slave.)

Editor's note: Mr. Boone's text is in standard Big Media Vandalism blue. Odie's text is in green.


Allow me to start this edition of the Black Man Talk with a letter that some of our readers may have received recently.

Dear Black Person,

This is an eviction notice. You have 30 days to vacate the premises so that we can turn your tiny apartment into TWO even tinier apartments that some White people will rent because the location is primo. Don't forget to take your roaches with you! On second thought, leave 'em! They'll add to the mise-en-scène.

Love you, bye-bye!!

Your Landlo'

Gentrification is a hot issue in the news, from Spike Lee's controversial rant to the Dropbox soccer controversy, where two privileged techies shamed my profession by trying to kick some brown kids off a public soccer field in San Francisco. "Who cares about the community?!" one of those I.T. people asked in the viral video. This "who cares?" comment could be the rallying cry for those like Lee who feel racial history is being wiped out by hipsters with big assed, irony-filled Negritude erasers.

I bring this up because one of the main plotlines in Dear White People deals with location entitlement. Samantha (the great Tessa Thompson--more on her excellence later) wants to repeal the housing mandate that will alter the living arrangements at her Predominantly White Institution of Higher Learning. These changes would prevent the small number of Black students from choosing the historically Black Armstrong Parker housing complex. 50 years ago, Winchester University would not only have been happy with these Negroes wanting to live "among their own," it would have demanded it. But now, as the Winchester dean so nonchalantly puts it, "racism is over" in Obama's Post-Racial America. Only by spreading out the Black student body and making them a literal and figurative minority presence in White housing do we truly overcome racism. Because nothing says "post-racial" like being the token Black person some place!

History and tradition are of utmost importance to the small faction of Black student protesters who want to keep Armstrong Parker Black. To lose that would feel like the final dismantling of racial identity for Samantha, Ricky and the others at the Black Student Union. As I've said before, my interpretation of "post-racial" is that everybody is now White and homogenous. You give up your identity for admission to a world whose actions constantly remind you of the identity you supposedly no longer have.

Which leads me to this paragraph from your spectacular review of Dear White People (and we agree on the 3-1/2 star rating):

"If it sounds like I'm talking around this film's supposed central subject, Race, I sho' is! This whole race thing is exhausting. Caucasians are generally as tired of hearing Negroes' race-based grievances as we Negroes are of being profiled, passed over for opportunities and murdered in the street with impunity. It's all so played out."

First of all, thank you for showing your age (and mine too) by using the term "played out." The millenials whose interpretions of race Dear White People projects are now scrambling for to translate your outdated Ebonics. Second, you may have wormed your way out of a discussion on race in that review, but I gots yo' ass now! We gonna talk about that shit!

It's a great jumping off point, because every character in Dear White People has a side hustle of racial overcompensation to go with their regular jobs as students. Let's face it head-on, and talk about Samantha, Kurt, Ricky, the Allstate guy, Troy and my favorite character, Tyler James Williams' Lionel. And to show you that I come in good faith, and even agree with you that race is a construct, I am hereby rechristening this chat as a "B---k Man Talk." We'll pretend to be post-racial just this once, at least until the readers send White Dog to eat our asses.

What say you, my bruva? I mean, my fellow human being of indeterminate origin?


Thank you, my n---a. My roaches and I are dying to see where this convo takes us.

I didn't really groove to Simien's more jaded and calculating characters, from the bitter Allstate guy to his charismatic but rudderless son, Troy (Brandon P. Bell). No doubt, these are all accurate "types" of individuals, each pursuing a different path to security and prosperity in a country that still doesn't know what to do with unfiltered Colored people. But they didn't speak to me much.

"Perhaps you related to me when I played the baseball player in Major League?"

Samantha and Lionel, on the other hand, spoke volumes. These kids were trying to find some simple truth beyond the politics of survival. Samantha, so willful and commanding, didn't see it until someone (her sweet white boo, Gabe) had the guts and insight to assert it; Lionel, quiet and wily, didn't see it until he stumbled upon the campus newspaper editors he thought dug him for his talent, instead of relishing his value as a token. What Samantha and Lionel saw was the trap of identity politics, on the blackhand side and the whitehand side.

The (unexpressed) horror is that running away from all that, and instead becoming a cultural crazy quilt, does not ensure security. It's actually the most dangerous move you can make in this country composed of voting blocs, ethnic enclaves and wondrous varieties of racism. If you can't identify a sizable community that has your back on the basis of national/cultural heritage (and economic networks) your ass is grass. You are depending upon the kindness of strangers, which, ha-ha, good luck.

This is why Dear White People ends with all the black kids learning to get along, to make room for each other's non-regulation traits and to understand that their lot is inextricably bound. That's beautiful, but also sad and realistically conformist: The only way forward for the Coloreds is to follow the same formula that helped other groups in this country prosper even as we swung from ropes and our gains were rolled back under our own country's relentless terror attack. The only way forward is the spiritual miserliness that insists there's not enough room and resources for all of us, so you best stick with your own kind and fight. It's the antithesis of what America claims to be but never was.

We know that certain parties clamor for post-racial utopia only because it takes the headachy issue of longstanding injustice off the table, with the added benefit of keeping the one ethnic group without a national identity (Africa be a continent) scattered and powerless. It's what gives that I.T. punk in the SF story the nerve to dismiss the idea of community. The only community people like him will acknowledge is one built around his comfort zone and backed by private capital. Or, if persistently public, policed to protect the money and the money people only. All this privatization jazz has turned the underclass into the trespasser class. So, I get how the campus housing battle in Dear White People is a miniature version of the gentrification shuffle happening all over the country.

It's just sad that it has to come down to fighting over territory. Same shit, different century.

"I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords."


The one character with whom I did not connect was Coco, the wannabe celebrity. Simien's least interesting material is the reality TV stuff, though I did like Coco's moment of clarity at the frat party. Until that moment, I didn't find her very compelling. I found Troy a more useful element in Simien's chess game.

Simien uses Troy and his dean daddy (Dennis "Are You In Good Hands" Haysbert) in an intriguing way. These are characters who think they can change the system while they're gaming the system, but their self-serving actions will eventually cost them. The dean points out that he was summa cum laude, but his former classmate barely passed the same classes and wound up being the university's president. The dean personifies the old adage my mother beat (literally) into me: You have to be twice as good as a White counterpart to get almost as far as they do. For some, my mother's notion may have come off as self-defeating. For me, it was an inspiration. I would not be the success I am without that mindset, psychological collateral damage be damned.

His lower-pay position is why the dean's so adamant about his son being down with the swirl created by the college president's daughter. This is the dean's ultimate revenge because, as we all know, a major component of racism deals with the fear of jungle fever sex! The university is sticking it to me, and my son is sticking it to your precious daughter.

The dean also knows that, if Samantha succeeds in causing "trouble on his massa's plantation," his ass is under the bus. He thinks Troy will uphold the status quo of a Negro flying under the radar, which makes it deliciously ironic that Troy neglects to tell him about the party that threatens his daddy's collegiate reign.

Troy is a character on both sides of the fence. His reign as the head of Armstrong Parker ties him to that storyline and his desire to be accepted by the lily-White  "comedy" magazine, Pastiche, ties him to the blackface frat party. Troy is willing to resort to being as racist as editor Kurt in order to get on the Pastiche staff. He sees this as a small price to pay for a possible catapult to Saturday Night Live. But Troy has the "illusion of inclusion"--he thinks that a spot on the Pastiche will earn him the respect of Kurt and his fellow writers when, in reality, he'll be just as big a token as Lionel is on that newspaper staff.

Troy knows how to curry favor with "self-deprecation," which is read by his White peers as acknowledgement that brown people are inferior. Hell, they're hearing it from the horse's mouth. Troy would make a great GOP candidate!

About Samantha and Lionel, you wrote:

"These kids were trying to find some simple truth beyond the politics of survival. Samantha, so willful and commanding, didn't see it until someone (her sweet white boo, Gabe) had the guts and insight to assert it; Lionel, quiet and wily, didn't see it until he stumbled upon the campus newspaper editors he thought dug him for his talent instead relishing his value as a token. What Samantha and Lionel saw was the trap of identity politics, on the blackhand side and the whitehand side."

Maybe it's me, but I found Samantha's sweet White boo's speech to her a tad condescending, as if he's saying "you're not as Black as you think you are!" He and I do share a fondness for the word mulatto, though, and his hollering of "mulatto, mulatto, mulatto!" was a high point of comedy for me. Far more fascinating is Samantha's later speech to him, easily the best patch of dialogue in the film. Thompson nails it, too. You can see it in her eyes, feel it hanging on her body like a ghostly apparition tugging at her clothes. The speech plays like a reverse "Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life" moment; this time Imitation's Sarah Jane is ashamed of her White father rather than her Black mother. Sam's father's illness jars her more into newfound consciousness than her boo does, though their romantic relationship is credible and hopeful.

I loved Samantha, but Williams' Lionel c'est moi. I didn't fit in anywhere growing up, and I had fantasies like Lionel does; fantasies where I'm accepted not only by my own people but everyone else as well. I was the neighborhood weirdo, the square peg on top of the round hole. I too felt weird about labels, but, after all these years, I've held on to at least one label:

"I'm Black, y'all..."
Like Lionel, I was wary of the Black students in my early days at school too, except they kicked the shit out of me for being smart. They didn't know about my bisexuality until they read this sentence, so I never got the kind of tormenting Lionel did.

At university, I was the only Black student in ALL of my classes. There were enough Black students at the university to have a Black Action Committee, but the meetings were the only place I saw 'em. And I know quite a bit about White people touching my hair without permission, especially when I had dreds. They can't do that shit anymore--I've kept a shaved dome for the past 20 years.

Lionel's disgust at the frat party helps him "conquer" his fears and seek the help and camaraderie of the Black Student Union. His scene with Samantha is especially good. "What do you want me to do?" she asks him, and when she finally shows up at the party, Lionel's confidence level visually increases. He feels united not in a racial context but in a purposeful one: He has a shared goal. It ties into what you said about not having to "depend on the kindness of strangers."

What messages do you think Simien and company are imparting to viewers Black and White? And why do you think the White folks who attended that frat party chose to go as racist Black stereotypes rather than, say positive Black people like Oprah or Dr. Maya Angelou? Can you imagine some blonde chick trying to imitate Dr. Maya Angelou's voice or some White guy holding Skip Gates' multiple degrees?!!

(Some costume suggestions for your next racist Blackface party.)

I didn't connect much with Coco but did appreciate her rude awakening at the Pastiche party. All of the black student characters arrived at an understanding of their relative powerlessness but also of their untapped power, which comes down to specific choices. Coco observed white kids celebrating her video rant as a mere ghetto fab stereotype, laughing at and not with her. To them she was 100% surface. Substance? Ain't nobody got time for that. Teyonah Parriss's regal beauty helped sell the cruelty of this moment.

It's the same queasy moment Dave Chappelle reported having when he saw white folks on his set laughing at one of his ridiculous characters for the "wrong" reasons. At some point he chose to walk away. From what? The hand that was feeding him. But it works both ways, not just with demeaning caricatures but also with the plum situation Justin Simien probably finds himself in right now.

Hilton Als once wrote the following in White Girls, about being invited to write an essay meant to accompany lynching photos:

"So doing, I'm feeding, somehwat, into what the essayist George W.S. Trow has called 'white euphoria,' which is defined by white people exercising their largesse in my face as they say, Tell me about yourself, meaning, Tell me how you've suffered. Isn't that what you people do? Suffer nobly, poetically sometimes, even?"

Als, too, chose to walk away:  

"This is my farewell. I mean to be courtly and grand. No gold watch is necessary as I bow out of the nigger business."

 I hope that young Colored filmmakers like Simien and Ryan Coogler and Ava Duvernay grow in their courtly grandness. I hope they continute to find stories that celebrate and lament in truthful, human proportions.

You said:

"Troy knows how to curry favor with "self-deprecation," which is read by his White peers as acknowledgement that brown people are inferior. Hell, they're hearing it from the horse's mouth. Troy would make a great GOP candidate!"
Despite his rant this year against "humility," Kanye West long ago opened up the pop culture floodgates on self-deprecation (and general weirdness) that contribute to a more nuanced interaction between white admirers and kids like Troy and Lionel. It's a fascinating mess. Give us a million years, we could never untagle the strands of admiration from those of condescension. It's one huge contributor to my own racial paranoia: Is this white person commiserating with me right now or rewarding what he (mistakenly) supposes is my lack of confidence?

With my closer Caucasian friends, I take a leap of faith and assume it's all love. (A fragment of an old Armond White quote about filmmakers taking a "leap of faith, a pledge of felllow-feeling" reverberates in my mind when I go to movies like Dear White People, and whenever my paranoia wants to turn to anger or withdrawal.)

Lionel is such a heroic figure to me, from the moment he first appears, just for going his own way. But he's also such an anomaly in pop culture that I fear most viewers immediatlely jump to Steve Urkel and Eddie Murphy's Norbit. A black man who isn't loudly trumpeting his worth (another cultural glue trap) is seen as emasculated, ineffectual. It's like, "fool" if you do, "fool" if you don't.

Williams nails this perplexed look. How many times have you felt this way?

Samantha's white boo Gabe is undeniably an admirer, but admiration doesn't prevent anyone from occasionally stepping in it. He makes a valid point about the damage of denying a portion of your (known, expressed) heritage just because it bears some historical scars. He's an apt pupil of race, but his blind spot might be the simple irony of the fact that THE CAUCASOIDS INVENTED THE ASININE ONE-DROP RULE. So, it should come as no surprise when the palest of Colored folk assert their blacketyblackness and downplay or outright deny their white heritage. This is what y'all wanted, White Man.

If split screen didn't already exist, the endlessly splintered "milennial gaze" would have had to invent it. Their lives are playing out on screens and in text boxes, and their filmmakers are finding cool ways to reflect that.

Future filmmakers of America, unite!


Ah yes, the One-Drop Rule!

You ever notice how math is always invoked in relation to Cullud (not Colored, my bruva!) folks? We were 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution and they have a shitload of names to refer to just how Black you are. Octoroon (1/8th Black), quadroon (1/4th Black) and Gabe's favorite word, mulatto (HALF, Ed-DEE!). I wonder if all these fractions subconsciously made me pursue math at university.

Since I saw Dear White People, I've thought about what happens next for each character. The university looks like it's about to enter into an unholy alliance with reality TV, thereby finding another way to exploit the youth of all races. But what about the main characters? What happens after college? How did it shape them? What are their futures? How will they differ from what happened to me a generation ago?

You expand that and ask what the futures are for some of our newest directors (note I left out the Black part, because these are directors who just happen to be Black). I had the privilege of sitting on a festival panel last year in Poland with Ava DuVernay, and I'm excited to see her latest, Selma. Coogler is rumored to be helming the Apollo Creed movie, which means I'll get to do the Clubber Lang one!

It took Simien seven years to get his vision on the screen, but I don't think he'll have the Kubrickian or Malickean luxury of spacing his movies out that far. There's also that sophomore jinx thingee the ar-teests and critics always fear.

The other thing Dear White People made me consider: How differently I see race and racism than these millenials do. There's a show on TV now called black-ish, where Anthony Anderson plays a Dad whose views on race seem outdated to his son. I've found myself agreeing with Anderson's viewpoint, which the show kind of negates every week. Now I know how the folks who liked Archie Bunker felt!
The Candy Man not only can, he also DID.

All in the Family tried to tell us how common, yet out-of-touch Archie's beliefs were in that era's universe. Archie didn't understand Meathead's perspective because it made no sense to his way of thinking and his way of life. This post-racial shit makes no sense to me, either, especially when many of the same things that were happening to us in 1974 are still happening to us in 2014.

"No gold watch is necessary as I bow out of the nigger business." -Hilton Als

This made me think of Al Pacino's famous line in Godfather III.

Your comment about racial paranoia hit a nerve, and not just because I've worked in a predominantly White career for 27 years (Blacks make up 4.1% of programmers). I've dealt with plenty of racism--explicit racism--as well as comments that I got my job through Affirmative Action or because the employer felt sorry for me, etc. The fact I'm a great programmer is the biggest fuck you I can offer back to these people. I'm still here, and I'm still working.

I've experienced this nonsense, though on a smaller scale, in the film critic world. For example, a film critic who shall remain nameless because we both know him, had the audacity to tell me that my 3-star take on Boyhood was due to the fact I "didn't get it, because you're Black." Never mind that I was once a boy (who grew up) or that I have more alcoholics in my family than the Betty Ford Clinic. Because Boyhood wasn't a masterpiece to me, it meant I couldn't identify with this White kid who went through things any boy would go through. I even got a Bible for Christmas once, like the kid does in Boyhood, but I didn't get a gun to accompany it like he did. Darn!

Whenever I dislike something that the general consensus loves (like Her, for example), somebody will bring up my Blackness as a possible reason why I'm not on the bandwagon. With Her, I found it especially amusing: I'm a fucking programmer, critic dude! You're the one that doesn't get operating systems, muthafucka!!

Pulling us back on topic: Will this fear of "not getting it" keep White audiences from Dear White People

Also, when the blackface frat party got heated and the cops came, were you afraid that Lionel, Samantha and the BSU were gonna get shot? I slumped in my seat fearing the worst, and I wonder that feeling of dread and suspense was Simien's intention.


Here's hoping fashion cycles back to Cullud or at least a more flowery, early American pronunciation of Negro, such as KNEE-grolle. Any well-dressed Colored person should be considered a KNEE-grolle. Used in a sentence: "The stylish kids of Dear White People are some natty KNEE-grolles."

(Brief detour: I'll never forget the little KNEE-grolle girl in my first grade class who, when we were all summoned to stand around the giant classroom globe, shouted, "Oh no! ILLL! Nigger?" She pointed to a spot in Africa: Niger.)

You wondered about what the future holds for Dear White People's Negroblacolered kids. I didn't worry so much about the fates of CoCo, Troy, Lionel and Samantha. They're not exactly Tre and Doughboy, knowhamsayin? They are at an Ivy League school, benefiting from circumstances 99% of us will never know. Any trials or left turns ahead of them will only help manage their expectations, bring them in better touch with "reality."

So I contemplate their next chapter in the same swipe I contemplate mine, yours and ours. Their generation is better suited than ours to navigate the exponentially breakneck pace of technological change, but ours is better prepared for the Third World Thunderdome economic picture fast unfolding. We are from the physical world and our minds were formed under the influence of analog media; of actual, not virtual environments. So those kids who get past the Ivory Tower gates will survive just fine. Those who find themselves stuck outside the net when the empire collapses in earnest will have to rely upon those of us with some unplugged experience. But this is the tutorial generation we're talking about here--the quick (if superficial) studies. Walking Dead episodes have probably taught them all they'll need to know.

Otherwise, I regard this group the way Ben Stiller's Greenberg regarded the young Caucasians in the film of the same title: they have an outsized confidence, narcissism and meanness that counts as toughness in a world that bows to youth markets. Except here they're black. The warring impulses, perceptions and expectations could produce a tornado.

As for the fate of filmmakers, my blood pressure is quite level. We are living in the future once dreamed of, where anybody can make a film and get it before the people. Any filmmaker who would measure his or her success against enduringly absurd and inhuman Ho'wood commercial expectations is beneath my interest. The only suspense is which filmmakers will retain a plantation mentality and who will remain an independent artist.
The cast of black-ish

In your ingenious contrast of All in the Family and black-ish, you said, "This post-racial shit makes no sense to me, either, especially when many of the same things that were happening to us in 1974 are still happening to us in 2014."

Yeah, the further we get away from the Slavery/Jim Crow/Civil Rights, the less precise of an accounting for its Plastic Man reach into our present circumstance we get. Segregation is still in force and class warfare has been streamlined, Photoshopped. When everybody in one's social circles is affluent, this reality stays at a safe distance. You can visit hardship via Netflix and HBO, but you don't have to grapple with what provides for it or perpetuates it. In that scheme, it's easy to laugh off both Archie Bunker and Anthony Anderson's character, without ever seriously weighing the merit of their claims. Archie was mostly wrong, but the show's writing let us in, over time, to the America that shaped him, lied to him and deposited him into a post-60's world for which he had no point of reference. I haven't seen black-ish, but I suspect there's a lot more to Anderson's discontent reflected in reality. Naturally, his relatively privileged kids (future Winchester University students), might think he's only seeing ghosts. They might feel differently in a few years.

Yo! I never once thought about the possibility of the black kids in Dear White People getting shot at the blackface party, but that could have been amazing. That's a Spike Lee move right there. It would have been too much and just about right.

You ask, "Will this fear of 'not getting it' keep White audiences from Dear White People?"

Probably. But that's no great tragedy. Every day I leave Skid Row to go to work in downtown Los Angeles. Once I cross Los Angeles street on 6th, the street traffic goes from predominantly black and Hispanic homeless people in tents to predominantly white urban professionals clutching Starbucks mugs. A movie about race that will coax these people to cross the street and find out something new about those they fear, loathe and pity  will have to be a lot craftier than Dear White People. It would have to be borderline science-fiction and beautiful beyond words, especially beyond that word "race."


That's a great sentiment to end this thing on. We out!

'What the hell did we just read?"

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You guys are the best. Hope to see one of these for Selma.