When I interviewed Justin Simien, the writer and director of Dear White People, after The Advocate included him in this year's "40 Under 40" list, I asked if he might follow up his soon-to-be hit with a sequel, Dear Straight People. He laughed and informed me that, while the possibility was exciting, he might have his hands full with the current "fray of politically charged comments."
"I think I've said what I needed to say with this one," he concluded. "Someone else might have to pick up that mantle."
But in many ways, Simien has already picked up that mantle, albeit in a manner less straightforward than the film's title would suggest. For those who still haven't heard, Dear White People, a satire that deals with race on a fictional Ivy League campus, has generated nearly universal acclaim from critics for its diverse, complex characters and its skewering of hypocrisy at Ivory Tower institutions -- and, more broadly, American society. As A.O. Scott raved in his New York Times review, "Everyone should see this movie, and everyone will see it a little differently."
However, many of these critics -- including Scott -- have glossed over the inherent queerness of the film. In addition to Simien, several of the film's producers, including fellow "40 Under 40" honoree Lena Waithe, are gay, a perspective that adds an underlying complexity and is manifested most obviously in the form of one of the film's central characters, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams). Though much is made of otherness in Dear White People, Lionel is truly the Other, a character who, due to his dual identity as gay and black, feels like he can't fit into either world -- a reality reinforced by his physical expulsion from both black and white residence halls at different points in the film.
And when the movie reaches its climax -- a showdown between minority and white students at an inappropriately themed "Unleash Your Inner Negro" party involving white kids in black face and gangster gear -- it is Lionel who becomes the target of violence: a round of punches received for daring to kiss his attacker on the lips.
"Racism is over in America," says the president of Winchester University, whose son, Lionel's attacker, personifies white privilege in the film. It's a comic moment, a testament to the delusion of the college's president and the blindness brought on by white privilege. Anyone who has turned on the news and seen the riots in Ferguson, Mo., can tell that racism is not over. But what dare not even speak its name is the fact that Winchester -- and by extension, higher education in general -- still has a problem with queers.
As I watched Dear White People, my mind flashed back to my own alma mater, a small liberal arts school very much like Winchester, where the majority of students were white and straight. The absence of a minority voice was painful. My freshman year, vandals tagged the slur "fag" on the door of one of the few vocal gay students, who had succeeded in bringing Judy Shepard to campus the year before to speak out against hate crimes. A lesbian couple who had the audacity to hold hands a few blocks off campus were called dykes in broad daylight. In 2008, the year I graduated, two women were sprayed with a hose by an irked fraternity member, after they wrote words in chalk advocating for the election of Barack Obama in front of the chapter's house.
Many of these incidents are left unpunished -- the perpetrator was either unfound or unclear. A few do occasionally get picked up by local or national media, but usually, the incident flares in campus gossip, only to recede and simmer within minority groups, who once again are forced to consider their status as outsiders on campus. At these moments, who wouldn't want a Sam White, the outraged protagonist in Dear White People, whose radio show calls out these injustices?
Dear Straight Men, lesbians are not for your masturbatory pleasure.
Dear Straight Women, gay men are not your accessories (but a few designed your accessories).
Dear Straight People, will you ever respect us as equals?
When the credits rolled, the filmmakers wisely included images from news articles of real-life racial atrocities committed on college campuses, bringing home that Dear White People is rooted more in reality than fiction. While it would have been nice to have seen headlines of homophobia on college campuses -- the antigay banner slurring Michael Sam at LSU comes to mind -- the film has already made this argument in a subtler way. The lion-hearted gay character, Lionel, not only stands his ground in the film's climactic scene, but leads the charge of a group comprised of every race and creed to break up the white privilege party.
In broader strokes, the film gives Lionel, and us, what is still so rarely seen -- not one, but two kisses with a man he falls for on the big screen. In an age where it is hard to produce any shock and awe in film anymore, the fact that these moments can electrify audiences -- some viewers in my Los Angeles screening gasped in disbelief -- only highlights the dearth of diversity in Hollywood.
So why would Simien need to create a Dear Straight People sequel, anyway? Anyone can read race in the Dear White People title. Like privilege, the "straight" is silent, but implied.