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Watching 'Dear White People' At Harvard

A new movie about race and identity is out in select theaters today. It's called Dear White People, and it's a satire set at a fictitious ivy league college. Or, as the promotional materials say, it's "about being a black face in a white place."

It's 31-year-old Justin Simien's first feature; it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance, and he has been heralded as a Spike Lee for the millennial generation. (And film critics are digging it. The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls it a "clever campus comedy," and adds, "you want to see this movie and you will want to talk about it afterward, even if the conversation feels a little awkward.")

Simien told me in an interview that it's time for movies to show a more complicated, less comfortable picture of race. "There's as many versions of being black as there are black people," he said. "And we're all having a different experience and sort of being lumped into one giant experience [onscreen] — it just isn't good enough anymore."

That idea resonated with African-American students from across the country who gathered in Cambridge to attend the I, Too, Am Harvard conference last Friday. The gathering focused on black activism in the age of social media. Senior Abi Mariam told me it was sparked by the I, Too, Am Harvard Tumblr that went viral last spring. It featured photographs of Harvard students holding up whiteboards with what Mariam called "microagressions" written on them. "You know, 'I'm blacker than you are,' or, 'Can I touch your hair?' or, 'Oh, my gosh! You're so pretty for a black girl,' " she said.

Mariam said those little digs make black Harvard students feel unwelcome in a place that's supposed to be home for a few years. Dear White People touches on those very themes, and a screening of the film kicked off the conference. In the movie, fictional Winchester University is home to film student Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) and her radio show. In dulcet tones, she schools her white peers on ways to avoid racist microaggressions: no hair touching, your weed dealer doesn't qualify as your "black friend," knowing rap lyrics doesn't mean you're black — things like that.

In truth, Sam is half-white herself, and she has an all-white boyfriend who is not afraid to call her out on her faux "Black Power" identity. "Your favorite director is Bergman but you tell people it's Spike Lee," he says. "You love bebop but you've got a thing for Taylor Swift." But the character who emerges as the film's unlikely hero, Lionel Higgins, is a gay sci-fi nerd with an afro who seems uncomfortable with his blackness. That's until racism on campus spurs him to action.

The Harvard crowd at the screening was feeling it. People were laughing and shouting and snapping throughout. (You can hear it yourself on my story that aired on Morning Edition.)

"It just felt like you were watching your life up on screen, it really did," said Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, a junior at Harvard majoring in history, literature and African-American studies. "I really related to a lot of the characters, especially Sam White. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, that's me, this mixed girl who is super militant with her own identity issues.' "

Simien says he was also Lionel his freshman year at Chapman University, a private college in Southern California. But he graduated as the militant Sam. In a question-and-answer session with students after the screening, he said he wanted to write characters and situations that were relatable to him. But in an earlier version of the script, he took out the blackface party, telling himself it was over the top. "I'm doing way too much, I need to pull back a bit," he told the audience. "But a few months later that happened, and I was like, 'Oh, OK. Got it, universe.' "

The universe brought Simiena string of real blackface parties at colleges across the country. Tiffany Loftin was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz in 2010 and remembers them well. Loftin says it was affirming to see art imitate life at the screening, but she worries that Simien might just be preaching to the choir.

"I would love to see a balanced body of white and black people in the theater," said Loftin. "If you have all white people, its problematic because they don't get it; if you have all black people, it's funny and we already get it." And, she said, while provocative, the title Dear White Peoplejustmight scare off folks who need to see it most.

In his question-and-answer session, Simien responded to that sentiment, saying the title was provocative on purpose — to create buzz. And he told the Harvard audience they also need to do their part to get people to see it.

"If you are passionate about this and you want to see more complicated, interesting characters of color on the screen, if you want to see yourself represented and reflected in the culture, then you've got to drag your friends to see this movie," he said. "We don't get more of these unless we support it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.