Friday, June 7, 2019

Tessa Thompson Addresses “Dear White People”

Poster mocks white folks' fascination with black hair

These days it’s hard to keep track of Tessa Thompson. Her image seems to be everywhere:  on billboards advertising the new Men in Black: International; on the tripartite cover of Vanity Fair, draped alongside other rising stars in a red dress to die for. I picked up a recent copy of Time saluting “Next Generation Leaders,” and there she was in a dramatic solo cover photo. Inside Tessa was given a full-page interview that probed her views on sexuality, race, and filmmaking, labeling her “an activist first, an actor second.”

Not bad at all for the perky young lady who used to hang out with my son after drama class at Santa Monica High School. She always had a personality to reckon with; now she’s entering the celebrity pantheon.

Tessa has recently been seen as an earnest young activist in Selma, as the girlfriend of the boxer in the Creed films, as the flawed superhero Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, and as the outside-the-law star of a small indie, Little Woods. She also registered strongly on TV’s Westworld series. She seems to have roles galore coming up, including a stint voicing the top dog in a remake of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. (Who knew?) But her breakout role was that of Samantha (“Sam”) White in Justin Simien’s 2014 satire of race relations at a tony liberal arts college, Dear White People.

I just re-watched this film recently, and found it delightful. It’s very much a product of the Obama era—the knucklehead president of Winchester College feels comfortable announcing that “racism is over in America”—but the issues it comically broaches are, alas, still with us today. What makes Dear White People so funny is the fact that virtually everyone (students, faculty, administrative staff) is essentially a hypocrite. The president may talk about educational goals, but he’s really fixated on sucking up to wealthy alumni. The dean (solemnly played by the invaluable Dennis Haysbert) is most concerned about his ongoing rivalry with the president. The campus militants ready to protest racism at every turn all seem to have ulterior motives too: one young Asian woman who hangs with the Black Student Union instead of supporting her own ethnic group explains, “You guys got better snacks.” Nor does the film overlook other campus types, like the misfit nerd, the future politician (who would really be happier as a comedy writer) and the “bougie” black chick relying on her “good hair” to get her the attention she craves. As for the most obnoxious of the white kids, the ones who gleefully promote a party mocking black stereotypes, they’re too pleased with themselves to be anything but jerks.  

Tessa’s role is one of the few that filmmaker Simien regards with some sympathy. As Sam, a student filmmaker whose “Dear White People” radio show is broadcast all over campus, she’s famous for her feisty take-downs of white assumptions. Her intensity is her hallmark. Someone says of her that “Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed-off baby.” But Sam’s got her secrets too, like a sympathetic white boyfriend who knows her favorite movie maven is actually not Spike Lee but Ingmar Bergman. It’s not until late in the film that we discover why she fights so hard to assert her blackness. This revelation confirms the film’s intelligence. Simien goes far beyond the outrageous hijinks of most college-based movies, drawing his various plot strands together to help us see something real about today’s campus life. And gives us a whole lot of laughs along the way.

 (No, that’s not Tessa on the poster, but here she is on her TIME cover.)

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