SATIRE ISN'T AS SHARP AS 'DETENTION', LACKS RADICALISM OF 'HI, MOM!', BUT HE KIND OF LIKES IT
Armond White, Out
on Justin Simien's Dear White People
"Turns out it’s passive, late-to-politics Lionel—the black gay dude—who represents Simien’s concerns. His evolution counters the old gay-until-graduation truism. Lionel sports a blooming Afro as significant as Dante DeBlasio’s. He’s awakened politically after his sex and writing life disappoint and once he discovers a Halloween party where the white students dress in blackface (based on those at Dartmouth, Penn State, and other campuses). This has a weak comic payoff (except for Coco’s counterintuitive costume choice), yet it brings out the desperation in Simien’s farce structure. Campus turmoil drives Simien’s suffering main characters a bit mad. Simien doesn’t critique them; his imperfect film shares the ideological confusion that has confounded all comedians during the Obama era—from the partisan satirists on Saturday Night Live to those Obama effigies Key & Peele on Comedy Central.
"Working post-Dave Chappelle, Simien presupposes a general racial awareness. Sam states Simien’s p.o.v. when she says 'Satire is the weapon of reason' and 'The job of the counterculture is to attack the mainstream.' Now that identity humor has become mainstream fodder, with subtle insistence on everyone’s assigned roles, Dear White People continues the assumption that everybody understands what gays, blacks, and women want. (A reality-TV subplot goes nowhere except offering the misinformation that '"re-enactment" is a documentary term.')
"Simien observes a lost generation of gays, blacks and women who forget what their protesting forbears fought for. (To wit: Sam frantically proclaims: 'It wasn’t speeches that turned the tide for civil rights, it was the anarchists that got the press'—a terrible reduction of history.) These 'post-racial' youth are shocked to discover there really is no such thing. This sad truth gives poignance to Dear White People's narrative mess...
"Simien’s satire isn’t as sharp as Joseph Kahn’s audacious Detention and it lacks the radicalism of Brian De Palma’s 1970 classic Hi, Mom! with its unforgettable 'Be Black Baby' mockery of white liberal fantasies. In the Obama era, comics have lost the ability to mock their own prejudices. Simien’s efforts cost him the depth of his four main characters—gay Lionel in particular. But I must admit: By movie’s end, Lionel’s confusion is more affecting than at the beginning."