Even 'Dear White People' Doesn't Quite Know How To Represent African Characters
Satire is the perfect weapon of reason, and that has never been more obvious that in the TV show, Dear White People. Based on the 2014 movie of the same name, and directed by Justin Simien, the show delivers nuanced and complex black characters, and addresses topics that are nearly unseen in the media. For example, a lovable main character’s sexual awakening as his male friend cuts his hair portrays a level of black male vulnerability that only director, Barry Jenkins, has managed to cover in his Oscar-winning movie, Moonlight.
In fact, episode 5 called “Chapter Five”, rightly directed by Barry Jenkins, is a heart-wrenching look at the violence black people - particularly black men - live in fear of daily.
Dear White People, despite its many main characters, also manages to do what has proved so difficult for many shows and movies: put (black) women front and center. The show’s leading women, Samantha White (Logan Browning) and Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Antoinette Robertson) are not just used to move the plot forward, like we're used to.
The show explores and shows their experiences across colorism, intersectionality, respectability, politics and the classic motif of two black women pitted against each other. And while watching, we were grateful that for once, the forces driving these two women - when they were friends and even when they aren't - were not men or popularity, but deep insecurities created by a system of racism. In an entertainment landscape that doesn't show a lot of female friendships, Dear White People, really comes to the rescue, in the way that Issa Rae's Insecure did.
The show is great in so many ways, but most especially in the way it doesn’t ask audiences to choose one character over the other. It just shows how different but valid everyone's perspectives about sensitive issues can be (re: White boy saying the n-word), even douchy white college boys that throw blackface parties.
Why then does such a great show fall for the 'Stereotypical African' casting?
Modern TV's idea of an 'African' is full of toe-curling inaccuracies, usually a black American/British person doing that tired, flat delivery of speech – almost always betrayed by an ill-suppressed twang or drawl – that has come to be known as the generic Hollywood “African accent” (Just watch the trailer for Will Smith’s Concussion, in which he portrays a Nigerian-born neuropathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu), making jokes about how shitty Africa is and just generally doing a reenactment of Coming to America. And Dear White People is not an exception.
This needs to stop.
In Dear White People, Rashid Bakr, a Kenyan is played by Jeremy Tardy, an American actor. Not to detract from Jeremy's skills as an actor, but playing an African does not entail just eliminating your American accent, appearing to internalize jokes slower than your friends and looking clueless...a lot; because believe it or not, Africans also understand jokes and sarcasm.
The idea of Rashid even having access to the well-liked faux-Scandal, Defamation, from a country - or continent, they still cannot tell the difference - associated with dictatorship and abject poverty was too perplexing for his friends.
The show, which has such a timely and mostly accurate portrayal of current events for people of colour, disappointed a section of people that were also rooting for it. For Dear White People, like the rest of Hollywood, Africa hasn’t advanced much since Jesus was still around - and Rashid was lucky to be in America. They also dumb down Africa’s reality, because they assume that a realistic portrayal of the continent - that we're really just like everyone else - is uninteresting or just plain unbelievable.
We may have things like poverty and corruption and giraffes in Africa, but we also have universities and industries and modern cities. Shocking eh?
By Olanrewaju Eweniyi, published on 05/05/2017