There’s been much discussion over two new additions to the pop-culture landscape this year. One is ABC’s new sitcom, “Black-ish,” which is currently enjoying fantastic ratings and strong reviews to match. The other is Justin Simien’s debut feature, “Dear White People,” which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and has earned major critical acclaim since hitting theaters in October.
Both works attempt to tackle contemporary race relations, a subject often stumbled over or quickly tip-toed around in great haste.
For “Dear White People,” the verdict is already out, and there is much to consider. But let’s first look at ABC’s comedy, which is still finding its way.
Six episodes into a first season that plans to run for 22, it turns out that the worst thing about “Black-ish” is its title. Still, it was clunky at first. From the outset, creator Kenya Barris established exactly what type of show we’d be dealing with and, by implication, what kind of show it had to be. Thirty years after “The Cosby Show” evolved depictions of black families on screen, network television was in desperate need of another evolution. “Black-ish” was deemed that next step the second it was announced, a sitcom that would work as an update of sorts on what it means to be black in America.
Such lofty ambitions would weigh down the greatest show, and “Black-ish’s” pilot certainly struggled to walk under all that weight. Anthony Anderson’s character Andre was distressed by his son Andre Jr’s wish to play field hockey and have a bar mitzvah. Those things just aren’t black! He also doesn’t like he’s been made senior vice president of the <i>urban </i>division of his company.
Can you see a message coming here? Brace yourself, the episode has several. Every minute of the pilot and its overbearing voice-over spelled out each contrived idea about “authentic blackness” and racial discomfort, and then hurled them at the screen in italics, quotations and exclamation points.
Similar punctuation plagues “Dear White People.” The film is set at a fictional Ivy League University, which serves as a minefield of naive notions, crass misunderstandings and identity crises. In a nutshell: college, but with a racial slant. This story of “being a black face in a white place” is centered around a character named Samantha, whose radio show takes sharp and snide jabs at the sort of casual racism delivered by well-meaning white people.
Other characters include Coco, who wears a weave and large eyelashes and craves fame of the “Love and Hip-Hop” variety. Troy is an ambitious future politician and the son of the Dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Then there’s Lionel, a gay freshman who can’t find a place to fit in. These characters are all easy to sympathize with, and the ways their identities are distorted or suppressed are handled honestly and sincerely.
But there’s another character that hovers off screen, one that shadows both “Dear White People” and “Black-ish.” That character is pervasive, it is critical, and it is oppressive. That character is the white gaze.
It is the white gaze that is the cause of all the punctuation and italics, the white gaze that establishes that these two works are having a tense conversation with the white viewership that it would seek to engage. “Please, please get what we’re trying to do,” they seem to be saying. “Please know where we’re coming from.” Simien’s film is called “Dear White People” after all. It’s addressed to them. Its conceit wouldn’t exist without them, and Simien can only hope that they answer his address.
“Black-ish” and “Dear White People” are part of a line of efforts that attempt to convey the African-American experience to white viewers. White people can imagine alien worlds, zombie-infested cities, and city-sized dragons, but the concept of being black in America is something that many of them just can’t fathom or empathize with.
Consequently, it is on Simien and Barris to make the unfathomable fathomable. This means a lot of hyperbole, underlining and exaggeration, the narrative equivalent of 2 + 2 = 4.
For Simien, his satire may have come a little too late to make real waves, but he certainly makes some splashes. Growing into oneself is painful and confusing even without having one’s blackness in question, and Simien understands those feelings well enough to craft some quality and thoughtful entertainment and to produce provocative, witty dialogue.
Unfortunately, in an age of “black twitter” and the omnipresence of social media, “Dear White People’s” dialogue sounds less brazen than it should. Each line delivered by Sam in the film sounds like it should be followed by a hashtag (the film started as a twitter account). For students at Howard University, Simien’s script will look just like their twitter feeds.
That twitter feed will have contained greater power this year than anything “Dear White People” could muster. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests that followed, black Americans took to twitter to post contrasting, split-screen photos of themselves. The one on the left might show him or her at a party or flashing an approximation of a gang sign, while the one on the right might show the person in a cap and gown, with family or in an army suit.
The dichotomy attacked the way images of black men and women are distorted or criminalized by the media and sought to emphasize the essential victimhood of Brown. Simien may have hoped for “Dear White People” to be able to stand alongside, say, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” as a vital encapsulation of race relations in America, but it is #IfTheyGunnedMeDown that serves as a worthier artistic companion piece to Lee’s masterpiece. This was something real, something true, something too busy staring down the white gaze to ingratiate itself with it.
Simien’s struggle in this regard is a real one. His film is based on his own experiences at a predominantly white college. He is working in a very white movie industry. The white gaze sears his back wherever he goes. He may be following in Lee’s footsteps, but he should be modeling himself after author Toni Morrison, who, in various interviews, has stressed that the white gaze will never be the dominant presence in her work.
Such a philosophy drives the eloquently specific studies in films like Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Dees Rees’s “Pariah” or Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George,” films that operate in a vibrant and vivid world that feel no need to cater to white audiences. They depend on the depth and richness of the filmmaking for meaning. They don’t translate their worries and ideas to white audiences. They don’t have to. They’re there waiting under the surface if one should choose to dive in.
Those films are about being black, not black-ish. “Black-ish’ is showing signs of knowing the difference. The show is reaping the benefit of focusing on character and family before preaching lessons on race. As the show has progressed, the series is depending more and more on the delightful comedic chops of the cast and the sweet dynamics of the family. The Halloween episode, in which Andre’s wife Bo (Tracee Ellis Ross) tries to stage an elaborate prank on Andre, is the sort of plot that would find itself in ABC’s other popular sitcom, “Modern Family,” but what unfolds is funny in that warm and fuzzy way when you realize you’re growing more familiar with the characters.
That isn’t really allowed to happen in “Dear White People.” The characters register more as spokespeople for racial ills, concerns and indignities, indignities every black person in America knows in their bones. Simien’s moves are quick and calculated, but he won’t knock out anyone other than white moviegoers, which partly explains why much of the critical praise comes from white film critics.
They haven’t heard all of this in one place before. Their gaze doesn’t cross over to black twitter as often as a Howard student’s might. They see progress through a film like this, or the African-American driven sub-plots in prestigious dramas like Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Cinemax’s “The Knick.”
In a sense, these efforts are progress, admirable acknowledgements of black people’s epic and grueling fight to survive and thrive in a cruel and unforgiving climate. The struggles of “Dear White People” and “Black-ish” suggest that climate still makes it hard for black people to breathe, to be their fullest selves. The white gaze hangs over them like a cloud, and it’s going to take a lot for some rays of sun to shine through.