(Editor’s note: This column was written before the movie was released on Oct. 17.)
The release date of Sundance award-winner “Dear White People,” a satirical window into the current state of race in the United States, is quickly approaching. As I’m a public-school teacher, not a film critic with access to press screenings, I haven’t seen it. Thus, I’m going out on a slight limb here when I say that white Seattle should see it in droves.
Films confronting issues of race are few and far between, and those set in a contemporary context are a true rarity. Even when such films as “Fruitvale Station” receive resounding critical acclaim, white audiences tend to stay home. (Regrettably, more than I care to admit, I count myself among this white population.)
Based on the previews available, “Dear White People” (www.dearwhitepeoplemovie.com) promises to explore black-identity issues within a white-washed landscape, specifically a fictional college, but it will invariably tackle Hollywood’s misrepresentation of African Americans.
Feminists have made great strides in holding Hollywood accountable for better representations of women. The Representation Project, responsible for the documentary “Miss Representation,” has spearheaded noteworthy, anti-misogynistic, social media campaigns like #NotBuyingIt and #AskHerMore. “The Hunger Games” adaptations and “Frozen” have demonstrated that female protagonists and female writers/directors can translate into box-office bucks. (Progress, no doubt, but note that Jennifer Lawrence and Jennifer Lee are both white.)
The Bechdel Test — which guarantees not necessarily a great film but one that has (1) at least two named women (2) who speak (3) about something other than men — has continued to gain popularity, even becoming part of Sweden’s movie rating system.
Last December, while watching the second installment of “The Hobbit,” I was struck by the need for a new test — one targeting racial representation in film. Fantasy films, so often stuck in some incarnation of Medieval Europe, have long poorly represented people of color. As the comedian Wyatt Cenac recently critiqued, such filmmakers can imagine a magic-filled world populated with “dragons and trolls and talking trees,” but they have drawn the line at imagining a dark-skinned hobbit.
Yet, during a scene in the town of Esgaroth, I spotted two humans of color in the crowd — neither playing the antagonist, the one role in which people of color have been historically overrepresented.
If you didn’t blink, Middle Earth finally included denizens who couldn’t double as heavy-metal rockers. But was this inclusion progress?
A new test, what I call the “Race Bechdel Test,” could help answer this question. Are there (1) at least two named people of color (2) who speak (3) about something other than white people? Alas, despite their welcome presence, these two unnamed, silent residents of color did not help this fantasy film pass. The test’s implementation would be a positive step, but even with it, Hollywood will always find ways of adapting to our increasingly diverse country without ever really changing.
Take “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the surprise blockbuster of the past summer. Out of the five characters in the ragtag band of outlaws, three are played by actors of color (revealing in itself). However, not one of these three characters is of color, racially speaking. Vin Diesel’s voice fills a walking, quasi-talking tree; Dave Bautista is painted blue-gray with red tattoos; and Zoe Saldana is painted green. Saldana, also a star of “Avatar” and the “Star Trek” reboot, has certainly broken into the white-dominated worlds of fantasy and sci-fi. At the same time, of these three hit films, she is only racially herself as Uhuru in “Star Trek.” As Neytiri in “Avatar,” her skin is again painted; this time, blue.
So the Race Bechdel Test cannot be the sole measure of progress in representation. Perhaps a better measure lies not with the filmmakers but with the audience — specifically the willingness of white Americans to show up — not just to be entertained, but to learn. “Dear White People” couldn’t have a more welcoming title.
Just don’t be surprised if the film, with its apparent goal of critiquing white ignorance, fails the Race Bechdel Test. If it successfully exposes the racism many people of color face daily, it still earns top marks.
JON GREENBERG is a teacher at the Center School in Seattle. He was recently reinstated there; he had been transferred to another school, following a complaint filed by a student’s family about racial dialogue in the classroom.
To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.