The other night I attended a screening of “Dear White People” at USC organized by USC’s own African-American Cinema Society and Black Student Assembly. I had high hopes for the movie. The trailer suggested that it might take an intellectual look at racism that a white audience could benefit from in terms of understanding the systemic disadvantages black people face. The movie, however, was a disappointment, but not nearly as disappointing as the audience I saw it with.
The audience was comprised of mostly USC students, faculty, and plus ones. The majority in attendance were black, and there were far fewer white people despite the film title’s address to them. But that’s not what I was disappointed with. As a surprise to both the audience and myself, one of the main characters, Lionel Higgins, was gay, and there were three gay kisses. As Lionel had his first kiss, our audience let out clear reactions of disgust.
My friend and I could not believe what we were hearing. We turned to each other and asked, “Is this really happening?” Being gay ourselves, we suddenly felt hated by everyone around us. When a second kiss came, the reactions were distinctly audible yet again. My rage grew as I could not believe that the people I had come to support clearly did not support me. I was dumbfounded by the hypocrisy that a minority group (watching a film about discrimination) could discriminate against another minority group.
The third kiss was probably the most offensive, not only because of the audience reaction to it but because of the way writer/director Justin Simien chose to craft Lionel’s actions. When Lionel goes to break up a racist “frat” party, the lead white and racist bigot named Kurt pulls him outside and starts pummeling him in front of a crowd of spectators, calling him a faggot. It’s then that Lionel says something along the lines of “Oh yeah, well maybe I am a faggot!” and pulls Kurt in for a kiss. Our audience busted out into one of the biggest laughs of the movie, thereby signaling their agreement that being gay is something that can take away a person’s power.
Let me clarify something, when someone calls a gay person a “faggot,” a “cocksucker,” a “fairy” or any other homophobic slur, that gay person would NOT kiss his attacker. We don’t kiss people who are pummeling us unless we want to be killed.
I was not the only one to see the false logic in this situation. During a Q&A after the movie, a student asked Simien, who attended the screening, why Lionel would do such a thing when it didn’t seem to align with the character’s motives. Simien, who is gay himself, replied, “Lionel is a character who at the beginning of the film does not hang his hat on any identity… By the end he claims his sexuality and uses it as a weapon.” Simien himself seems to view gay sexuality as something undesirable that can be used to take away a person’s power. The design of the line in the film and its delivery suggests, “Well, if I have a disease, then you have it too!” The interaction promotes these ideas for its homophobic audiences, whose worst fears about gay people is that they WILL try and kiss them so they should be afraid of them! Keep hitting!
This message is especially disappointing given how many audiences will see this and now make these same associations. This message is especially disappointing knowing how many young, gay kids will watch this and start to believe that their sexuality is disgusting. This message is especially disappointing given Simien’s sexuality, which clearly indicates that he may have some of his own inner demons working to tell him that this is true, that being gay does make one weak and disgusting. Simien saw his gay character as a plot point to bring a storyline full circle instead of thinking about him as a real person. A real gay person would never kiss a homophobic assailant, but a character trying to complete a story arch would.
Earlier in the discussion session, after many black people had raved about the film saying “This is the smartest film I’ve seen about race” and “Thank you for making this,” the MC decided it was time to hear from a white person. The chosen white person said something along the lines of, “I couldn’t help but notice that some of the strongest reactions in the room were regarding the gay storyline. I remember back in 2008 when Prop 8 passed, they found that it might have been because of the black and Latino vote. Do you think this is true? And why did you include a gay storyline?” You could hear the audience members awkwardly shifting in their seats and others giving grunts of approval. Simien replied that because he himself was gay, he thought it important to include another black voice to show yet another side of the community’s struggle. Suffice to say Simien failed in this effort, showing a lack of understanding of his own LGBT community and buying into the same ideas that being homosexual is something to be ashamed of. I will give him some credit for attempting to expose members of the black community to a subject they might be uncomfortable with, but trying to tackle complex issues regarding race AND sexuality in one film was something that Simien, a first time filmmaker, was not capable of.
As a white audience member, I missed the lesson about racism that I was looking for. There are some self-satisfied lines of the movie that are very intelligent, but they are said so quickly that you miss the message. The film’s focus seems to be spewing as many thesis statements about race as possible rather than showcasing the feelings of daily oppression that black people face. Furthermore, the white characters are so racist that as a white person you say “Well that’s not me. What can I do about that?” Simien seems to simply bring light to some of the idiocy black people have to endure, rather than offering up any solution. The film seems to say “Dear White People, some of you are idiots,” rather than, “Dear White People, here’s what you can do to help.”
The whole film was structurally messy, and the characters’ motivations were often illogical, making choices out of convenience to the plot rather than what would be natural for the character. It was revealed in the Q&A that the script was originally intended to be a TV show, which makes sense given there were far too many characters and plotlines to contain within one feature film. The film tried to say too much and, in doing so, said very little at all. If this is one of the smartest pieces of black media that we have, then the black audience deserves better, and not just with another story about slavery.
As disappointing as all these flaws in the movie were, what most disappointed me was the audience. I can’t believe that this happened at USC, my alma mater, at an institution of higher learning in the very liberal city of Los Angeles. USC has one of the best LGBT centers in the country, yet still this level of homophobia exists on campus. I can only imagine what the level of homophobia must be like in other less-educated and less-accepting places of the world. I know that it must seem narcissistic that my one take away from the film is about how I am discriminated against and how gay people as a whole are misrepresented. But it’s hard not to see that when you are sitting in a theater surrounded by people who so obviously don’t approve of you.
My heart goes out to black, gay people who have to experience hate and discrimination from their own families and loved ones. It’s one thing to experience racism and homophobia individually from strangers, but it’s another to face them both, and sometimes from the very community one belongs to. It’s no wonder that drug-use and HIV-infection rates are highest amongst the black, gay youth who must receive the least amount of support and education from their respective communities. As CNN news anchor Don Lemon said to the New York Times when he was coming out “[Being gay is] quite different for an African-American male… It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture.”
I still believe black people deserve equal rights. I still believe that black people face systemic disadvantages because of their race. I still believe that unarmed black teenagers do not deserve to be shot. I was hoping that I would go into this film to learn more about racism and how to fix it, but I left instead with a newfound paranoia that the (straight) black community hates me.
Alex van der Hoek is the founder and writer for GayBoyGuide.com, a website that features interviews with a wide range of gay personalities and chronicles gay news and happenings through video.