Westerners may like to think we live in a post-racism, post-colonialism world, but the truth is far from that. Three films at SFIFF this year fruitfully explore this arena: Justin Simien’s biting satire, Dear White People; Hubert Sauper’s documentary, We Come as Friends, about colonialism in South Sudan; and Amma Asante’s period piece about a black aristocrat, Belle.
Dear White People
Writer-director Justin Simien’s fantastic satire, Dear White People, focusses on a quartet of black students at a mostly white, elite liberal arts college, in the lead-up to a black-themed frat party: a racist gathering that’s more common across this country than you might think. We meet Samantha (Tessa Thompson of Veronica Mars), whose controversial radio show gives the film its name, who acts as the black students’ angry crusader; her overachieving ex-boyfriend (Brandon P. Bell), who feels the burden of being a symbol of black advancement; his admirer (Teyonah Parris of Mad Men), a girl who wants to be in the spotlight but fears her blackness might get noticed; and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the gay freshman who finds himself writing a story for the school paper, about which he knows little, because it needed a black author.
At least, that’s how they’re first presented. But Simien’s film is far too smart to be about stereotypes: everyone’s identity, and in particular, how they see themselves, gets complicated by multiple factors. By looking specifically at “being a black face in a white place”, the film resonates more universally about the malleability of identity and personal mythology, and how we deal with not quite fitting in. Shooting his protagonists from below, they tower over the frame, empowered, even as they try to figure things out. The film has the buoyancy, wit, and occasionally high-school-esque confrontations, of Cruel Intentions and 10 Things I Hate About You — it’s fun, highly re-watchable, but occasionally clunky in plot. Dear White People is very, very funny, very clever, and goes down easily, even as it explores uncomfortable and difficult subject matter.
Read our full review of Dear White People here.
Amma Asante’s Belle transports us back to the eighteenth century, when the rules of decorum were more explicitly laid out, in a less successful attempt to deal with being a black face in a white place than Dear White People. The Belle of the title is Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman born in England whose white father sent her to be brought up by his rich white relatives. There, she was given privileges rarely seen by black people at the time, but denied others that should have been her birthright because of the colour of her skin.
Just as she’s coming-of-age, her uncle, The Chief Justice, is presiding over the case of the Zong slave ship, where diseased slaves were thrown overboard for the insurance money. As she fights to persuade her uncle to serve justice, falling in love with a young abolitionist in the process, she also deals with becoming an heiress who doesn’t look the part. But in trying to give us a woman to root for – and a viable romance – Asante drops twenty-first century characters into the 1700s, taking many liberties with the true story – which is less idyllic – and bludgeoning us with a manipulative score, just in case we weren’t feeling exactly what she wanted us to.
We Come as Friends
Even being in an African country where the majority of the population is black, doesn’t exempt you from feeling like a black face in a white place. In his documentary, We Come as Friends, Sauper interviews local South Sudanese people, as well as the many foreigners – missionaries, UN workers, entrepreneurs – who have come to South Sudan “as friends”. The foreigners may bring technological development, like new airports, but the only benefit to the locals is to bring them new jobs as cleaners, destroying their land, water, and landscape in the process.
Sauper explores how the long history of colonialism in Africa, has had a profound and lasting effect, which continues to this day. The foreigners appear to have good intentions, but their rhetoric is troubling: they constantly claim they’re there to help the locals, when what they’re talking about is helping themselves or assuaging their guilt. Sauper also lets the locals tell their story of how their land keeps getting taken, their resources exploited, and their voices never heard: the war-torn country is itself the product of arbitrary borders and age-old fights brought by colonialists. This is a compassionate, thoughtful film, which reminds us that Westerners trying to help in Africa are actually part of the problem.
Read more: Hubert Sauper talks We Come As Friends >>