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Of Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes, or Why “Dear White People” Deserves Another Look

Here’s a joke for you:

What is Heaven? In Heaven, the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian, the police are British, the engineers are German and the bureaucrats are Swiss. What is Hell? In Hell, the cooks are British, the lovers are Swiss, the police are German, the engineers are Italian and the bureaucrats are French. Ha!

There are many versions of this long-standing riff on European ethnic stereotypes, all with slight variations (the French as hellish mechanics and the Italians as terrible organizers, for example). What they all have in common is an understanding that the joke is as much on the teller (and the listener, if s/he finds it funny), since we laugh in recognition of our own preconceived notions (and we all have them) about the ostensible national characteristics of each group. As someone who is half-French and grew up reading the popular Astérix comic books – which traffic in this brand of humor – I was steeped, for better or for worse, in this kind of (mostly) gentle ethnic satire. What, perhaps, redeemed the whole enterprise is that the French (Astérix is a Gaul, one of the inhabitants of France during the long-ago Roman occupation) came in for some of the most outrageous ribbing of all. If you’re willing to make of fun yourself, than all is fair, right?

The popular British comedian Catherine Tate (who later appeared in the American version of The Office, as Nellie Bertram, starting in Season 7), back when she was still hosting her eponymous variety show, performed in one skit that ups the ante on this kind of ethnic humor. In it, she plays a witless interpreter at a multinational meeting who “translates” for her boss by speaking in nonsense syllables that recreate the sounds that nonspeakers of the respective languages perceive when they hear those languages. Funny? Your call. I laughed, for sure, if only because the power of the joke is twofold: one, it makes fun of those – particularly native English speakers – who make no effort to learn other languages; two, Tate’s offensive imitation of the other languages is actually quite close to how nonspeakers hear them. She’s a talented one, that Tate.

The problem when you base your humor on making fun of others – which is the foundation of quite a lot of comedy – is that you are bound to offend. If you are an equal-opportunity offender, and include yourself in the mix (witness Astérix), then (usually) much is forgiven. And depending on who is doing the telling of the joke and who is the receiver of the joke, different things offend different audiences, and different audiences have different tolerances for offense (depending on the teller). Years ago, when actor Ted Danson appeared, in blackface, at a roast for Whoopi Goldberg, the fact that Danson and Goldberg were lovers – and had probably decided, when in bed together, that this would be a really funny joke, ha, ha! – did not assuage the offended feelings of the audience. Context, in other words, is everything. Historically oppressed groups may find denigrating stereotypes from their historic oppressors less amusing than others, for example. If we extended the joke with which I opened this piece to include African and Arab nations, we might ask members of those ethnic groups, currently residing in France, how witty they find it (methinks they might not like it at all, and with good reason).

The creators of a show like the long-running animated Comedy Central series South Park have made this kind of comedy their stock-in-trade, following in the footsteps of predecessors like Monty Python and The Simpsons. No one is immune from their acerbic barbs. While I have never managed to watch more than the occasional episode, I did see – and like – Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 1999 feature film adaptation of the show. They lampooned a vast array of targets, notable among them the silly residents of the titular Colorado town where the show/film takes place. Still, it’s hard not to question, at times, the glee with which the makers pursue all forms of caricature – beyond gender, racial and ethnic – in the name of satire. They’re very clever, but does their constant use of the most extreme kinds of stereotypes serve any higher purpose other than the juvenile need to offend? And do two white guys get to pass judgment on members of groups not their own? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not an easy question to answer (beyond the simple free speech aspect of it, which states that, yes, they should do whatever they want).

I recently went to see the hit musical The Book of Mormon when it came to my hometown. Winner of 9 Tony Awards, it’s written by the South Park team. They’ve always had a knack with songs (“Blame Canada,” anyone?), and here they do not disappoint, with hit tunes like “I Believe.” The show follows a group of Mormon missionaries in Uganda as they confront misery, despair and their own faltering faith. The butt of the jokes is frequently the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormons), but the folks in Uganda come in for some direct hits, as well. I enjoyed parts, but was increasingly uncomfortable with the portrayal of the “Africans.” Backward, uneducated and simple-minded, the residents of the Ugandan village reminded me of the characters in another French-language comic, Tintin in the Congo (published in the 1930s, back when Congo was still ruled by Belgium). Even in the world of satire, this caricature struck me as starkly outdated. True, the Mormons in the play are ridiculous, but they are civilized and, ultimately, the heroes. Even in the name of broad comedy, I felt that the show was perpetuating outmoded ideas of Africa. Granted, it’s a messy continent, but it’s a mess in no small part because of the legacy of colonialism and white denigration of blacks.

When I came home, I searched the internet for articles about racism in The Book of Mormon,and found none from American critics. Really? None? I’m the only one who found the “Ugandans” inappropriate? In a country – ours – still frequently riven by racial discord, how could this be? Given the many recent college protests against racism, I find this especially hard to believe, since there is usually someone, somewhere, attuned to racist portrayals in the media. Fortunately, I found support across the pond in the United Kingdom, where some audience members and critics have responded as I did. At least I know I’m not crazy.

This disconnect between my reaction and the mountains of American critical praise heaped on the show gave me pause. And as the college protests continued, I found my thoughts directed back one year to the movie Dear White People, the debut feature from Justin Simien. When it came out, I gave it a mostly positive, if mixed, review. Now, though, it seems more timely than ever, presaging a wave of discontent that cannot be ignored. Let us take a moment to reappraise this important film.

Justin Simien started the lengthy process of making Dear White People with a 2012 Indiegogo fundraising campaign, accompanied by a concept trailer that laid out the kind of film he had in mind: a satirical comedy set at an elite college where racist actions by white students lead to (smart and funny) pushback from black students. The movie tells the story of biracial Sam (Tessa Thompson, Creed), who produces the titular campus radio program where she takes on white prejudice; gay black nerd (or blerd) Lionel (Tyler James Williams, Everybody Hates Chris), who self-identifies with no one group; reality star wannabe Coco (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq), who is willing – almost – to suppress her outrage in the name of her career aspirations; and good old boy Troy (Brandon P Bell, Hollywood Heights) – son of the Dean – who just wants to get along in white society as best he can. While, last year, I found the premise a little too on the nose, much of the satire within was on the money. And it should come as no surprise to anyone today that the simmering resentments of black students on our nation’s college campuses are hardly a figment of Simien’s imagination.

What sets the plot in motion is a plan by a white fraternity to hold a black-themed party, complete with blackface and other offensive trappings of white condescension towards African-Americans. Does this sound familiar? It should, since these kinds of parties actually do happen, and at least one recent college protest was fuelled by a debate about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. In other words, Dear White People is not a prisoner of a specific time and place, but is, instead, about yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Whatever one thinks of the ongoing protests – which are now getting some pushback of their own, rightly or wrongly – it’s hard to argue against an open and free dialogue about our collective responsibility in correcting historic injustice. What I admire so much in Simien’s movie is the way the director tackles a difficult subject matter with wit and panache. Furthermore, by making his ostensible main character, Sam, both white and black (though she identifies as black), he makes her, in a way, a stand-in for our troubled past of cultural and racial miscegenation. In fact, he reclaims that word – miscegenation – traditionally viewed as a pejorative, and makes us see the glory of what our country could be if we embrace our history, accept that it’s problematic (to say the least), and find a way to move forward, together. And he does this – unlike our friends over at The Book of Mormon – without resorting to egregious stereotypes. Sure, the white preppy guys are assholes, but they’re not one-dimensional assholes.

Even better, Simien reminds us that one can tackle big, serious ideas and be funny (without being offensive) at the same time. He certainly does not shy away from racially or ethnically motivated humor, but shows enough respect for all involved that we never lose sight of the fact that everyone is a real human being. He’s like a man who gets why my opening joke is funny and sees the satirical value of shows like South Park, yet wants to do more than make us laugh. He wants to help us learn. If you haven’t yet seen Dear White People, then I recommend you give it a try. If you have, then watch it again. You will marvel at its prescience.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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