Dear White People’ conveys complexity of contemporary race relations
Colette Greenstein | 10/23/2014, 5:35 a.m.
It’s easy to find that with the recent movie, for example, This Is Where I Leave You which has a great cast and is a great movie. Why aren’t there more films like that, that represent a more rounded black experience?
JS: I’ve said this before, that those kinds of movies are meant to speak to the human condition. It’s unfortunate that in the marketplace movies that speak to the human condition so rarely have black characters in them or black actors or anybody black in the world. That has a subtle way of suggesting that our experiences aren’t as important and that when it comes to matters of the human condition our experiences and stories are irrelevant to that conversation. Those are the kind of more covert ways that I think culture sort of suggests things to black people about their identities that I think are harmful.
What does it mean to you when you hear about the black experience and identity?
JS: For me it’s been constantly sort of bobbing and weaving other peoples’ presumptions of me because I was never the right kind of black person. My family was Creole and so my understanding just the skin tones of blackness was already very different from what was kind of out there in the culture. My concept of blackness was just not ever the same as mainstream blackness. My mom was really into education and we listened to pop music and then I listened to alternative music. I never was able to properly emulate. When I grew up, the sort of gangsta culture was in vogue. You had kids from really good neighborhoods walking around with a limp. I never did it right. I found I was always sort of “blacking it up and blacking it down” amongst black people and white people. That’s just the way I came up and out in the world. So I think that’s definitely had an influence.
Your film seems like it might have led the way for the new TV show Blackish, which talks about the same issues of what it means to be black, the black experience. Do you think the timing of where we are right now politically is right for this conversation?
JS: I think it’s in the Zeitgeist now. I started in 2005. I don’t know when the creators of Blackish started and I don’t necessarily think one has to do with the other. It’s funny how people start to think about things and it takes so long to develop these projects and it’s impossible to say. It happens in Hollywood all the time. I feel fortunate about it. I think TV has always been a little ahead of the curve too, particularly on this issue, starting with the Dave Chappelle show, the Boondocks, and Key & Peele. Black satire has found a place in television. But film is sorely behind. It’s great that we had a year of black films but Meryl Streep can get an Oscar for playing anything. She doesn’t have to play a tragic role where she dies at the end or is striving at the end. I can’t wait for the time when black actors and black directors and black writers are getting awarded for important movies that have nothing to do with the tragedy of the black experience. That’s when I think things will change a bit.