In the early part of the book of Exodus as Moses is standing in the face of the burning bush, communicating with the presence of God, he asks an important question, “Who am I…”
King David, slayer of Goliath, man after God’s own heart, receives a promise from God that will echo throughout eternity and he responds with a question in prayer, “Who am I…”
Isn’t this the ultimate question? Maslow places self-actualization as the top priority of existence. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.” Look around at any given university and you’ll find a multi-generational mosaic of people scratching their temples, drawing maps of their hearts in search of just who it is they were created to be.
There may be no bigger question out there for humans to ask and there may not be a better film that so thoughtfully depicts this search for identity (also in a university setting) than “Dear White People,” first time writer/director Justin Simien’s satirical romp into American race relations.
This is a film that needs to be studied. There is no wasted motion or dialogue, it all has purpose and creates this comprehensive look at some of the most relevant issues around maturity, identity, culture, and race.
The movie chronicles the experience of four black college students at a fictional Ivy League institution. One device to love about this story is that while it pokes fun at the narratives Hollywood sells as the black experience (you must play a slave to win an Oscar, you must be one-dimensional to earn box-office dough) it presents complicated, multi-layered black characters, an unfortunate rarity in the celebrated films in the current landscape.
There are no easy answers in “Dear White People.” The characters are complex, but the broad culture they find themselves a part of is even more bewildering. They are navigating a mine field of driving a post-modern society while feeling the weight of the culture they now have to carry and define.
The thesis of the film can perhaps best be found in my favorite scene. Sam, the leader of the Black Student Union, is trying to make her way to a protest of a housing randomization policy the organization believes is an attempt to disrupt black culture and unity on campus. On her way she is confronted by the school’s dean who calls her out for hiding the fact that she is biracial. She is also being pursued by her hidden white boyfriend who may be the only person who truly sees who she is. Ahead, waiting impatiently is her biggest cheerleader in the BSU who also has feelings for her. As her heart is being tugged in all of these directions she approaches the protest and as she looks down and reads the protest signs the expression on her face reads, “Is this really who I am?” In the same moment she receives a call from her mother…her father is ill and is not doing very well. The tension is real. In this moment we are thrust into an incredibly authentic experience of someone on the road to self discovery.
Amidst this personal struggle, our characters are also constantly faced with the question of is racism still relevant? Ask the president of the college and he will say that all of their struggles are not black struggles but universal student problems and insists that they don’t have a diversity issue on their campus. At the same time, though, the protagonists are feeling like their culture is not valued.
Some respond with outrage and protest, while others try their hardest to fit in to many of the sectors of white culture. Each is a quest to feel valued and more often than not these efforts are ignored or written off as unnecessary. They are conflicted and hurting but no one sees it, sometimes they themselves don’t even see it.
The conclusion of the film may seem outlandish or unrealistic, but if you pay attention to the credits, the issues are brought into reality. This is a sign of effective satire but also an answer to the question of where we are at with race relations in America. I’d love for “Dear White People” to be more fiction than non, but look at what happened on that bus in Oklahoma just this last week.
How can we pay more attention to tension all around us? Especially the inner-tension people of color feel on the road to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. The image of God is in us all. How can we affirm that image in those that cannot see it for themselves? There are many more questions “Dear White People” poses. Please see and study this film and start asking them.
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