Dear White People ponders post-racism – but we need to talk about that

Dear White People… Witchfinder

Is there such a thing as post-racism?

That’s what Justin Simien’s film Dear White People asks us to consider. And it’s just about to hit the UK.

Dear White People is a subtle and good-natured satire on the issues of race in the Obama age. It was written, according to Simien, “in the age when many were under the delusion of ‘post-racism’”. But racism is precisely the cloud that has preshadowed its UK release.

Despite widespread acclaim in the US (it was an instant hit at the Sundance Film Festival and took a respectable $4.5 million at the box office), Dear White People has only been given a very limited cinematic release in the UK – and only after the The New Black Film Collective scraped the money together to buy the rights to the film. It wasn’t picked up by the BFI for a national release, nor by any of the major distributors. No major cinema wants to show it.

As a consequence, some campaigners – including Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) – are insisting that the lack of cinematic distribution in the UK is evidence of “institutional racism” within the British film industry.

Ivy League setting

So let me tell you a little about the film. Set in an Ivy League university, the title refers to outspoken student Samantha White’s regular radio broadcast which she addresses to “Dear White People” – a litany of observations and complaints about what she perceives as “White Privilege”.

However, the denouement reveals the aptly-named White to be the subject of an identity crisis regarding her mixed racial identity. Her bilious diatribes against white people and ill-judged attempts at uprising are nothing but a cover for her own racial ambiguities and insecurities. At one point in the film White is told by her principal:

I think you long for days when black people were hanging from trees and denied actual rights. That way you’d have something to actually fight against.

Here’s the thing. Dear White People is not an incendiary film. It’s quite subtle. It’s quite gentle. It likes white people.

And yet it has still failed to find traction within the UK film industry.

The debate

In an interview on the Today programme this week, Priscilla Igwe, Managing Director of New Black Film Collective and Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund, went head to head (sort of) over the non-distribution of the film in the UK.

It was a confused sort-of-debate. Igwe was keen (she said) to get the film seen by black people as well as the white mainstream, and was determined that the non-distribution revealed institutional racism. Roberts was thoughtful and generous in his responses, taking note of the arguments and gently pointing out that 90% of films don’t get a BFI-supported release. More importantly, he said, an imminent Netflix release made any cinematic release problematic. “But we need people like Priscilla,” he chirped, and even sounded like he meant it.

So, art imitates life imitates art. Between them Igwe and Roberts unwittingly played out the themes of the film. The likeable Roberts became the benignly paternal and, frankly, perplexed white man trying to be both reasonable and sympathetic. Meanwhile Igwe played out shrill centuries of angst with utmost tenacity. She wanted the film to be seen by “the white mainstream” in independent cinemas – forgetting that “mainstream” and “independent” are somewhat incompatible concepts.

“The film is addressed to white people,” Igwe claimed, a sentiment echoed by Aisha Harris’s largely ambivalent review in Slate.

But is it addressed to white people? Well yes, in the purely titular sense; but otherwise perhaps only in an ironic and self-reflexive kind of a way. Ultimately it was the “only half-black” White herself who needed to hear the message, at which point she reconciles herself to her inner conflicts and exits hand in hand with her patient (white) lover. “Dear White People,” she concludes, her epiphany writ in gold; “Never mind.”

Never mind. What are we to conclude from that: that racism doesn’t matter any more? Doesn’t exist? Or just that talking about it doesn’t make any difference? Or maybe – maybe – talking about it makes it worse. Or maybe it means that you can talk about it all you like; but in the end, the “dear white people” don’t – can’t – really understand.

So never mind.

Is there such a thing as institutional racism? Yes. In a “post-racial” Obama age we are all left swimming in the flotsam and jetsam of the past, still mired in a language that defines who we are and what we are no matter what we say to the contrary. And yes, that matters more to some of us than others, since – as Orwell knew – some sheep are more equal than others.

And the past has a habit of repeating. Defined as we are by and through the prism of skin-pigment, all statements around race serve only to reinforce and reinscribe the false masks of racism.

Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about it? Of course not.

And what can we say about it?

Well, never mind.

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