“Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.”
Iago’s cry to Brabantio, the father of Othelo’s white lover in Shakespeare’s “Othelo,” can perhaps be inverted and abstracted to sum up/capture the story of Justin Simien’s “Dear White People.” In fact, the film is essentially Shakespearean in nature.
Framed by Anderson-esque intercalary title cards and backed by an entirely classical soundtrack, the film exhibits all the trademarks of a Shakespearean production. It relies heavily on one-on-one dialogue and exhibits unrelenting wit, unhidden conflict, opposing houses, and romantic unfaithfulness, but it is the last tenant, that of hidden or mistaken identity, that truly drives the film.
Samantha White, the film’s biracial lead, is tossed around by dilemmas concerning her racial identity and that of the people(s) around her. On one hand, she is a prominent member of the Black Student Union (BSU), head of a traditionally black residence hall, and proprietor of a polarizing campus radio show “Dear White People;” on the other she is a fan of white culture, has a white boyfriend, goes to a white school and is literally half-white herself.
The internal conflict Sam undergoes is perhaps best summed at the height of her anguish when her boyfriend, Gabe, calls her out by claiming “[y]our favorite filmmaker is Bergman (a Swedish director) but you tell people it’s Spike Lee.”
Bergman, who coincidentally got his start directing and producing a number of Shakespeare’s plays in Europe in the 40s and 50s, thrives on the presentation of clear themes in ambiguous light. In Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly,” he plays with issues of certainty by stranding four characters on an island and observing them over a 24 hour period. The title literally means “Through a Mirror,” or in this case through four different mirrors.
The same can be said of Sam, who alike sees her world through a glass darkly. There are a dozen mirrors, a dozen shades of gray, and she feels forced to choose between two, black or white, however she can’t be a Spike Lee in her self-storytelling, she can’t commit, pick a side. She is cursed to live in the 21st century, and grapple with 21st century complications.
This curse of modernity does not go announced by writer/director Simien. As the film’s tensions mount, Sam is confronted by (white) President Fletcher, who accuses Sam of “longing for the lynch days when there was actually something to fight against,” to which a black member of the audience in turn yelled profanity at the screen.
The film culminates at a Halloween Party — a party is another Shakespearean must-have, and what better kind to discuss the costumes we wear, the people we try to be — thrown by white students of an opposing house, that is “black” themed. White students dress in baggy clothes, gold chains, and many actually parade in blackface. Sam organizes a massive party crash by the B and A(Asian)SUs and an all-out fight breaks loose. Sam views all this through the lens of her handheld Super 8mm video camera, as she does throughout the film.
Upon showing her completed movie in class, documenting the recent racial tensions on campus, she is met with resounding applause from her peers (where before, for an earlier one of her films, they were silent), but the viewer (not the class) is made aware that she orchestrated the all of it; the racist party, her election as head of house, and most importantly her image.
“Dear White People” is a tragedy. Sam in many senses kills herself internally, she does not end up standing for what is right and true because it is a difficult, undefined territory. Simien proposes that it is not so much a question of “is Sam white, or is she black?” but “who is she really?”
Sam is afraid that an old white ram is tupping her, a black ewe, and certainly there is validity to this point, but perhaps, Simien suggests, it is time to move away from such polarizing positions, to find a happy medium, so to speak, that is not only a compromise, but an enhancement of racial, ethnic and most importantly human character.