This movie tackles race in the microcosm of an ivy league college. The film focuses on four black characters as they live and learn on a predominantly white campus. One of them, Sam, uses her radio show to point out the racist sins of her fellow students – “Dear white people: The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count.”
It is by no means a perfect movie but it does spark a very important conversation, and you may have noticed by now that one of my barometers for a “good” movie is one that provokes a discussion. The film fearlessly points out the prejudice not just of the white students, but of the black students even toward each other. It’s a real meditation on what racism means in American in 2014 and culminates in a big party where white kids are encouraged to “liberate their inner Negro” and boy do they. This is satire and not satire because of course these events have actually taken place on many real campuses, not 50 years ago, but maybe 50 days ago.
Recently, Benedict Cumberbatch has had to apologize for using the term “coloured” in an interview. He immediately took responsibility for his mistake, but this too has opened up the debate. What he actually said was: “I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.” His terminology is outdated and offensive, at least to some. But it also highlights the fact that we still, as a society, don’t know the right answer here – because Cumberbatch wasn’t meaning to offend. Dear White People uses the term “coloured” a couple of times, actually, and that may add to our confusion.
At the end of the day, Cumberbatch’s assessment IS correct: Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, David Oyelowo, and Chiwetel Ejiofor have all had more success in the American market. David Oyelowo in particular has just this year appeared in Interstellar, Selma, and A Most Violent Year. The small part he played in Interstellar was not a “black” part, and that’s a step in the right direction. Now we just need about 100 more steps, because the #OscarsSoWhite problem doesn’t start at the Oscars, it ends there (note: Cumberbatch is nominated for best actor for his work in The Imitation Game while Oyelowo was overlooked for his brilliant performance in Selma). The problem begins on casting couches. There isn’t enough diversity on any screen (big or small) and David Oyelowo, coming to Cumberbatch’s defense, said that there was “absolutely” an issue with diversity within the film industry, which Cumberbatch was decrying. And while language is definitely something we should continue to re-evaluate, it’s only one part of the bigger picture. That’s why films like Dear White People are so important, and why Hollywood serves as a scapegoat for society. This stuff still makes us uncomfortable. We don’t always know how to talk about it. But I hope that at the very least, we can all agree that we must keep talking. And it proves why movies like Dear White People have value: as a white person, I want very much to be an ally, but clearly our good intentions need to be steered. I don’t know what the answers are, but this movie helped ignite conversation, and it’s clear that white people need to shut up and do some serious listening.