Last month, Justin Simien’s film “Dear White People” premiered across American theaters. Days before its official release, the film had an early screening near Princeton University campus as a part of Princeton’s black alumni reunion weekend. Since that showing, and the subsequent nation-wide release, several members of The Stripes have watched DWP and weighed in with their impression. As a film possessing such monumental ambition, Dear White People has received both praise and criticism; its unconventional approach to race relations has led to the inevitable remarks that it is simultaneously breaking down barriers and simply not doing enough. Here, we have collected a few reaction statements from students of various backgrounds, offering a sampling of Princeton’s own praises and critiques. After reading, feel free to discuss your own reactions in the comments section.
The Troy Complex
Did anyone else feel uncomfortable as they watched the interactions between the characters Troy and “Coco” play out on screen? As an African American woman navigating her way through a top tier university and its dating scene, it felt just too real for me. Two high achieving black people attending a top tier school in a movie titled Dear White People: this had power-couple potential. I could sense the chemistry from the first “hello,” so it was no surprise to me when they ended up having sex. I guess it also should not have been a surprise when nothing else came of it. It should not have surprised me that when the movie ended Troy did not want to associate with Coco. It should have been no surprise when Coco didn’t get her happy ending, because in schools like Princeton and Winchester, black girls like us rarely do.
In a movie that centered on black stereotypes, Troy represented the popular black guy able to successfully navigate his way through both white and black circles. At Princeton I have met one hundred of him, and I will probably meet one hundred more. These ‘Troys’ are arrogant, entitled and unapologetic about their behavior. What is it about institutions of higher education that foster the development of such a complex?
DWP’s Troy, despite his weed addiction, his cheating on his girlfriend, and his arrogance, was celebrated while Coco was made to be the villainess. At the end of the movie Troy has his happy ending. Is it wrong that I identified with Coco, and her desire to somehow prove herself in a society rigged against her? Is it wrong that I detest Troy’s character because he still wins in spite of his flaws, and because he unfortunately rings so true to life?
– Anonymous, ’18
I really liked Dear White People. As a white person who’s almost arrogant enough to throw around the term “ally” to describe my relation to racism and other forms of oppression, I tend to assume I’m “not like the other white people” in that, hey, I’m not super-racist, and therefore no, I don’t need to talk about important issues! The intense focus on microaggressions in DWP — some of them microaggressions I’ve certainly committed without a second thought — helped ground me more firmly in the reality of the racist assumptions I inevitably hold. In my opinion, the only way to actually seriously confront issues of race is discourse, discourse, discourse (one of the reasons I joined The Stripes), and DWP did an excellent job in reminding me of that.
The one thing that I worry about is that a significant portion of white people who go to see the movie won’t identify with the portrayal of arrogant white assholes in the movie. Though the film generally did a very good job in actually fleshing out its other characters, the white roles seemed more like devices than anything else. I fear that white people watching the movie will say something along the lines of, “But I wouldn’t throw a blackface party! I’m not racist like those people!”
-Will Rivitz, ‘18
Provocative? Yes. Entertaining? Yes. Enjoyable? Mostly. Complete? Not by a long shot.
First, the film fails the Bechdel test, an unofficial test based on one criterion: does the film involve two female characters interacting with each other and talking about something other than a man? Although the primary female characters have lots of screen time, they hardly spend it with each other, and much of the plot relies on male characters. For instance, Reggie rigs the election, the casting director manipulates Coco, and even Lionel eventually embraces the role of brave rebel and the climactic catalyst.
Also notable is the under-representation of other races, such as Asian-Americans.I understand the focus on the racial issues of black people, but even among cast extras there are hardly any Asians, who in reality comprise a significant population in American universities and already too often overlooked in mainstream media. The film only mentions Asians and Latinos in passing at the very end.
Essentially, I was disappointed that the film was not progressive in ways I somewhat expected it to be in terms of gender and racial representation. Dear White People was billed as a voice for one marginalized group, but I can’t help but think it missed out on providing space and support for other groups as well, making it more difficult for me – an Asian woman – to take it as seriously as I’d originally hoped.
-Christie Jiang, ’17
When I heard about the movie “Dear White People,” I desperately wanted it to be the movie it professed to be: a satirical look at the experience of Black students at an Ivy League institution, one that would hopefully incite useful dialogue about the many micro-aggressions on college campuses. I was most excited about the characters – particularly Sam, Coco, Lionel, and Troy. I did not believe the characters were particularly unique or groundbreaking, but I welcomed the opportunity for characters to be cast in a new, three-dimensional light.
With such high expectations, it is no surprise that I walked away from the movie feeling disappointed. The movie was funny, clever, and interesting, but the characters, the feature I had been most excited for, were particularly disappointing. For a movie that was character driven, they all fell flat in the end due to a lack of development and substance. I never knew enough about the nuances that went into their personas. In fact, I am not exactly sure what the lesson was that each character learned in the end. Troy and Coco seemed virtually unchanged from the way they were in the beginning. Lionel, who had previously existed on the fringes of the college’s black community, reveals a new shorter haircut later, perhaps to signify his newfound place. Finally, the protagonist Sam walks away into the sunset with her not-so-secret-anymore boyfriend as her friends look on, perhaps to show that she was not the girl many people believed her to be. I was unimpressed that this was the extent of their character “development.”
While the characters were not the only flawed part of the movie, I wanted the myself and the audience to be able to connect with the characters as much as possible so they seemed like real people tackling real issues. Without that emotional connection, it was too easy to leave the theater entertained but largely unaffected. Perhaps, if one or two characters were given a little more focus, the outcome would have been different because the character(s) would have been fleshed out sufficiently. Alas this was not the case and in the end, all I learned was that movie characters, like real people, are capable of disappointing you.
-Adetobi Moses, ’18