Brandon Bell & Marque Richardson | Black People in John Hughes Movies

dwp sqFruitvale Station opened the week of the George Zimmerman verdict. Art is a medium to express what’s going on in society.

 


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Have you ever had either a nasty fight or a strong bout of drama with a loved one, and soon after watched a funny movie or funny TV show with them and felt much better? Maybe comedy doesn’t solve any of your problems, but it does feel like something you desperately needed all the same. After two months of protests in, around, and about Ferguson, where I’ve taught at a community college for the last nine years, that’s how Justin Simien’s film Dear White People feels: It may not solve any of our problems, exactly, but it does make you laugh (hard) and make you think about how you yourself approach race.

Shortly after viewing the film for the first time, I had opportunity for what looked like was going to be a 10-minute interview with Dear White People’s Brandon Bell (Troy, the golden boy of the film’s black community at a state university) and Marque Richardson (Reggie, a more militant hacktivist), which was to take place in a hotel lobby. For them, our talk came at the end of a day of interviews with St. Louis journalists, meaning that they would have heard all of my dumb questions a dozen times already by the time I arrived. With some luck on my part regarding scheduling, though, this short, stodgy interview morphed into something more of an adventure. All told, the interview ran some 40 minutes and was spread across a hotel lobby, a couple of cabs (one of which had me squooshed between the two of them in the small backseat), and the lobby of a radio station. Now, consider that Bell and Richardson were smart and funny from the outset (and game to unartificially answer said dumb questions of my own):

I begin with a simple compliment: “I’m assuming you two are the most charismatic actors in the movie; that’s why the studio is touring you around.” In response, Bell strikes The Thinker pose, deepens his voice, and says, “We’d like to think so.”

This results in me sounding like I really want them to like me upon playback of the interview—too quick to laugh, trying to sound smart—especially when Dear White People is a film that makes you think about how you talk and think and act about race. The result? Me compulsively combing through the audio recording of the interview to check and double check if I said anything stupid, tactless, misinterpretable. Why do I ask Bell and Richardson, who are perhaps most recognizable at this point from TV work rather than movie work, about race representation in the respective mediums, but I don’t ask the white directors, writers, and producers I’ve interviewed the same questions? Aren’t members of the latter category more in control of what parts are being written, which actors and actresses are being cast, and therefore more in need of being asked these questions? Why do I ask Bell and Richardson if they think a straight white male audience is capable of embracing their film (the film’s two lead characters are a militant mixed race female and a meek, gay black male)? Sure, both studios and most audiences have forever presupposed that movies featuring female main characters are for females, but movies featuring male main characters are for everybody; movies that have black main characters are for black audiences, white main characters for everybody; and gay main characters for gay audiences, straight main characters for everybody. If my job of being a journalist is to hold people accountable for this type of lazy and restrictive targeting, I could be doing a better job of my work.

And besides all of that, what about Ferguson? The topicality of the material seems it couldn’t have been timed better, since the issues it tackles (well, and with humor to spare) are on our collective minds right now. Bell points out, “Good art has a funny way of always being relevant, due to universal themes. Race and identity are just two that will live forever.” 

He goes on, “Fruitvale Station opened the week of the George Zimmerman verdict. Art is a medium to express what’s going on in society.” Earlier, regarding the film’s unplanned topicality, Richardson pointed out “[We] can’t just come in and talk about a movie when real stuff is happening. The movie is a completely different story from what’s happening in Ferguson, but it’s a conversation piece, and being that it is a conversation piece, the timing is needed.”

It’s hard to imagine the first time the film’s actors read the script. Dear White People is fairly incendiary and deals with race head-on, but, as mentioned, is also the funniest movie of the year. “It seemed like a serious movie that had funny elements,” says Bell. “It wasn’t until I actually saw it—and I know Richardson has a lot of the funny stuff—he said he didn’t get it at all until he saw it.”

Richardson follows up, “And we’re comedy people! I didn’t get any of the funny comedy in reading it, in playing it, in any of it, until I saw it.” Bell: “Audiences laugh in different places, and we’re like, ‘What? I was being serious!’ Justin [Simiens] definitely intended it to be satirical in nature; whether that came across to us initially, I don’t know.”

“It’s a weird little art house film; a little bit of Spike Lee, a little bit of Wes Anderson,” is Bell’s way of describing the resulting film. And now that it’s making its way into theaters (opening in limited release October 17, and coming to St. Louis October 24), unusual reactions are already starting to pop up. As Richardson revealed, “People who haven’t seen the movie, who are just sitting at home in their basement in their drawers eating hot Cheetos: Bah bah bah bah bah! What about a Dear Black People?!” [The concept of Dear Black People criticism is directly addressed in the film (hint: it looks and sounds a lot like Fox News).]

“But they haven’t seen it. I haven’t talked to anyone who was offended by the title initially that has seen the movie and afterward hasn’t had their views switched.” Even its buzz has been making weird bedfellows. Bell observed, “In the last few days, Dear White People has been trending number one on Yahoo!, and the number twos have been hilarious. So, the first day it was Dear White People number one, and number two was Adolf Hitler. The second day it was Dear White People number one, and number two was, this is what it said: ‘Jesse Jackson ebola.’ Today is Dear White People, and Molly Ringwald.” 

This, of course, led to an ongoing challenge for all of us in the cab to come up with any black character with a speaking role in any John Hughes movie, which none of us were able to do. And this, in miniature, is how the film works: It presents you with funny dialogue, observations, and scenarios, which later lead you to think more in depth about yourself and the media you consume. It’s hard to think of a more pleasant way to take your medicine. | Pete Timmermann

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