As a filmmaker, intersectional scholar, and a huge fan and supporter of the original trailer and campaign for “Dear White People,” I was ecstatic to be able to go see the film here in Columbia, SC. The film itself didn’t disappoint. Clearly influenced by Wes Anderson in cinematography, but wholly unique in tone, it was a brilliantly funny, biting, and moving film. The acting, the directing, the cinematography were all superb, even before you take into account the origin story and budget of the film. The experience of seeing the film, however, was incredibly unpleasant. Spoilers ahead.
Just as the trailers were ending and the movie starting, a hundred people started pouring into the theater. This was the Morehouse College Football Team, here in Columbia to play Benedict College tomorrow. Morehouse is an all-male historically black college in Atlanta not too far from my own undergraduate institution of Emory. It is the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As the movie started, I was excited that this many people were in the theater to see the movie. It was a short-lived excitement.
There are three main plots in “Dear White People,” and one of them focuses on a black gay kid named Lionel, played by “Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams, who doesn’t fit in with any group — not with gay kids, not with white kids, and not with black kids, who have historically treated him with homophobia and cruelty. His story is about the toxic effect of homophobia in the black community. In addition to the heterosexual romances involving all the other characters, there is also a budding romance between Lionel and another man. The initial hints at this romance did not win the Morehouse College Football Team’s approval. They started saying homophobic things every time Lionel was onscreen. When Lionel had a same-sex kiss, the team went into a frenzy — everyone turned on their phones and said they weren’t looking, they started yelling, “What kind of movie is this?” Several of them walked out, others started yelling at anyone on their team for looking at the screen when the kiss happened, “Man, you looked at that, I saw you!” “What is this gay shit?” “Some of y’all didn’t turn your heads away!”
It was nauseating. But it got worse.
Lionel has a major heroic moment toward the end of the film in which he breaks up a racist party being held by an entitled white jerk, who is, more or less, the antagonist of the film, and who verbally and sexually harassed Lionel over his sexuality throughout the film. The racist white guy tackles Lionel and pins him down. In retaliation, Lionel kisses him (this freaked out the audience again), but the racist white guy responds by punching Lionel repeatedly in the face.
They cheered. This room full of black men who attend Dr. King’s alma mater. They cheered for the racist white guy because the black man he was being allowed to beat without repercussion was a faggot.
When the beating stopped, the Morehouse player behind me said that the white guy should have kept hitting him because that’s what he got for being gay.
I want you to imagine yourself in a dark room with a hundred physically fit men rooting for a hate crime to be perpetrated against a gay man. It was terrifying. It was horrifying. It was depressing. Can you imagine what a kid on that team who was gay would have felt?
When the film was over, it was all the men of Morehouse could talk about. Who hadn’t closed their eyes and looked away when there was gay kissing? One player said of Tyler James Williams, “Man, I must’ve watched every episode of ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ back in the day. Can’t believe he’d go out like that. Shit kills me.”
I don’t know if Morehouse College offers LGBT sensitivity training, but it should have someone come speak to the football team. Even if you don’t approve of homosexuality, to come to a city as a football team, representing your college and your hometown, and to spit hate and vitriol in a room that includes other people, including LGBT people — it is not OK. What kind of school sends out ambassadors of hate? Can it be the same one that sent out Dr. King? Hewing to the stereotype of black homophobia makes Morehouse and the black community weaker, and there are real victims. Lionel may be fictional, but his treatment was not. It’s a shame that “Dear White People”‘s message of acceptance didn’t reach everyone in the room.