Sam White: A Cautionary Tale

By Courtney Becker


Image Credit: Screen Capture from Dear White People, directed by Justin Simien. Lionsgate

With the election of a black president, Barack Obama, in 2008, people were beginning to discuss race relations as though they were no longer a problem in the United States. Dear White People, a film written and directed by Justin Simien, points out the many flaws in this argument and gives real-life examples of racial discrimination still prevalent in the US, but manages to avoid an accusatory tone while conveying an important point to audience members of any race. Despite the fact that the film literally addresses white people, Simien crafts a message that may be geared toward all audiences. Dear White People preaches and exercises tolerance, displaying "generosity of spirit in considering the views of others… and [being] open to that most radical of behaviors—changing one's mind" ("What We Teach"). This is most noticeable in the character of Sam White, who slowly sheds her radical views throughout the film and resolves her character arc with a very different perspective on many of the issues she takes a stance on earlier in the movie. Because of the harmful consequences of her actions prompted by binary reasoning, Sam realizes the destructive nature of her protests and changes her mind about how best to be an activist in the 21st Century. With the support of dialogue, setting, camera work, and arrangement, Dear White People uses the character of Sam as a cautionary tale of the dangers and negative effects of polarized thinking.

Simien sums up Sam's original perspective in the film through a conversation during which she explains the differences between "ooftas, nosejobs, and 100s," cutting between Troy, Coco, and Sam and Reggie to show examples of each category. Sam considers Troy an "oofta" because he "modulates his blackness, up or down, depending on the crowd and what he wants from them," and Coco a "nosejob" because she tries to "smooth [her] black edges to try to blend in." The examples of these behaviors the film uses are taken from when both Troy and Coco are trying to suck up to Kurt and his staff, painting them as desperate to fit in with the white people, and, in turn, in a negative light. These scenes, as well as the disapproving tone Sam assumes when describing "ooftas" and "nosejobs," imply that she disapproves of anyone who puts him or herself into one of these two categories. When Simien comes to "100," though, he has Reggie step in and assert that this is "Just keeping it 100. Just being black as hell, just cuz," drawing attention to him as the biggest example of this category. The smile Sam exchanges with Reggie, though, indicates that she is also a member of this group and thinks most highly of people who are "100." At the time, Sam is fully committed to appearing "black as hell" and hiding her "white" personality traits from others despite the costs, because, as she puts it, "There are only a few ways colored folks can survive at a place like this." Before her growth, Sam believes that only way to exist in a society of white privilege is to reject white culture and embrace black culture in every way possible.

The movie's dialogue also reveals, however, that being the face of the revolution stands in the way of Sam's own happiness, and it signals the progression of her transformation as the film moves along. Sam feels guilty about her relationship with Gabe, the white TA in her film class, because she thinks that her black friends will see her dating a white person as traitorous, and considers getting together with Reggie after kissing him even though she doesn't have feelings for him because he is "the only eligible single brother on campus." This informs the audience that Sam is putting her image as a black person before love and happiness, which Gabe calls her out on by telling her that he's "sick of [her] tragic mulatto bullshit." His line, "This isn't you, Sam," and his ability to point out several of Sam's characteristics that she hides from others—such as the fact that her favorite director is actually Bergman and she "has a thing for Taylor Swift"—establish Gabe as the only person in the film who can see through Sam's façade. Gabe understands that Sam has "been co-opted as some sort of revolutionary leader" by Reggie, and his dialogue shows that he is the only one who isn't afraid to be honest with her about her assumed identity. Sam's dialogue, as well, indicates her turn away from the spotlight. Before the rally Reggie pressures her into planning, Sam reluctantly asks him how long she has to speak for and tells him she thinks "the whole Malcolm X thing is more [his] lane," suggesting she is uncomfortable as the center of attention in this forum, but still unwilling to refuse to play her part. Toward the very end of the movie, though, Sam states unequivocally that she is "done being everybody's angry black chick," and finally takes a stand for herself and what she wants instead of letting herself be manipulated by those around her. These lines serve as benchmarks for the different phases of Sam's transformation during the film.

Sam's first true taste of power, and the subsequent negative consequences of her abuse of it, comes when she officially segregates the Armstrong Parker dining hall, which prompts her realization that she may not be the right fit for a leader. A college campus is so effective as the setting of the film in large part because Dear White People chiefly manifests the "us against them" mentality Sam promotes amongst black students through the dorm life on campus. The film depicts Armstrong Parker, and its dining hall in particular, as the epicenter of black culture at Winchester University, and Sam fosters and encourages this mentality for most of the film as the dorm's Head of House because, as she puts it, the black students need to "bring black back." The main conflict between Sam and Kurt, a public argument over race and privilege, takes place in the Armstrong Parker dining hall in full view of the many black students there at the time, and when Sam kicks Kurt and his staff out, the residents of Armstrong Parker respond with cheers. Because of Kurt's display of ignorance and intolerance that prompts Sam's decision, this moment initially appears to be a triumph over the racism Kurt embodies. Sam, though, goes so far as to not allow white students into the dining hall at all, and she takes things a step further by allowing the residents in the dorm to throw paper at any white person who tries to enter. In this instance, her actions and the actions of the others in the dorm seem far less justified, even cruel. When Gabe tries to enter the dining hall, the students throw paper at him as well, despite his complete innocence in the situation. Through the shots of Gabe's disgusted reaction and the look of sad discomfort on Sam's face in return, Simien communicates to the audience his condemnation of this behavior and Sam's comprehension that she may be in over her head as the face of revolution at Winchester. By literally saying to white students, "You can't eat here," Sam has effectively segregated her dorm's dining hall, promoting the discrimination of another race using a type of discrimination black people faced throughout history and still face today.

The film uses camera angles and panning to show the audience that although Sam acts as though she is fully committed to her role as a revolutionary, she is actually uncomfortable being the face of change at Winchester University. Sam is cast by others as and takes on the role of the school's "angry black chick." The audience first sees her discomfort in this position through the Head of House campaign speeches scene. During Troy's speech, he is shot from a low angle, giving the audience the impression that he is above and looking down upon everyone as we look up at him, adding to the air of confidence and authority he exudes as he speaks, and making Troy seem as though he is a natural in the spotlight and enjoys the attention he is receiving. Just before Sam begins her speech, however, the camera cuts to a shot of Sam's head from behind, and slowly pans down her back to reveal her clasping her own hands together in nervousness. This type of panning "prolongs the point at which viewers can process what they see" (Lancioni 110), and adds to the viewer's surprise when the total meaning of the shot is revealed. Because of the confident demeanor Sam publicly presents, the audience does not expect to see her show any sign of fear, and the slow pan by the camera leading up to that moment makes the realization that she is not as self-assured as she pretends to be all the more significant. Contrasted with the powerful angle at which Troy's speech was filmed and the actor's strong delivery, this physical manifestation of Sam's anxiety adds to the impression of Sam as a scared little girl created by the shot.

One might argue that because Simien places examples of polarizing thinking with which Sam seems fully comfortable in the film, he is not arguing against this way of thinking at all. The first project Sam presents to her film class features actors in whiteface, a clear reference to the blackface used by white people (including at the end of Dear White People), as they dramatically bemoan the election of a black president. During her film, Sam stares up at the screen with a satisfied smirk on her face while the white students in the class shift in their seats and look around uncomfortably, and she later passionately defends her project against Gabe's critiques, which fits with the argument that bilateral thinking may be positive at times. This argument is weakened, however, when Sam presents her second project at the end of the movie, after she has rethought her approach to activism. During this film, which presents two sides of the argument about the blackface party fairly and equally instead of pressing Sam's beliefs upon others, Sam is the one who is shifting and looking around nervously, as the other students around her watch the film with interest and even applaud upon its finish. The different levels of engagement and subsequent responses from her peers make it clear that Sam's message and the impact her film has on her peers is much stronger when presented in an unbiased manner. The contrast between Sam's behaviors during each of the showings also reinforces the appearance that her first movie is an act of defiance for defiance's sake, while her second comes from a far more vulnerable place. The juxtaposition between these two scenes strengthens the argument that Sam serves as a cautionary tale for polarizing thinking.

By waiting until the end of the film to officially reveal that Sam's father is white, Simien's "effective ordering of elements and appeals" increases the rhetorical effect of Dear White People by adding more weight to the resolution of Sam's transformation from her "old self" to her "new self" (Herrick 8; WCA 2). Simien reveals that Sam's dad is sick at the beginning of the film, and it comes up a few more times over the course of the movie, but it is not until Sam's last scene that Simien confirms her father is white, instead dropping hints throughout the movie that Sam is biracial. "Mulatto" is a word used to describe a person with one black parent and one white parent, Reggie tells Sam he "thought [she] was Puerto Rican when [he] met [her]," and Dean Fairbanks notes that she probably grew up "Wondering which side [she] fit into," and "feeling like [she] had to overcompensate," all of which serve as clues to a conflict in Sam that is deeper than she acknowledges. When the audience finally learns officially that Sam is biracial, these clues, as well as her change of heart, suddenly make sense. Sam's conversion is largely prompted by her fear and sadness at "The thought of losing [her dad]," and her wondering "How awful [is she] to do that to him? To anyone that [she loves]," referring to the broad generalizations she makes on her radio show about all white people, including her father and Gabe. Sam recognizes that by stereotyping a whole group of people, she has been unfairly talking about and hurting people she loves, and ends her show by signing on as usual with, "Dear white people," pausing for several seconds, and saying, "You know what? Never mind," signaling her "turn—a moment of realization or change" (WCA 2). If Simien had revealed Sam's father is white from the beginning of the film, her change of heart would come as no surprise and therefore would make no impression on the audience. Simien seems to believe that the "strongest argument stands to have the greatest impact on [an] audience if it is the last point they hear" (Herrick 14) and therefore waits to put the argument that polarizing thinking hurts others into words until Sam's final scene.

Throughout Dear White People, Sam transitions from an extremist who is fully committed to her black identity to someone who is less and less afraid to show the world her true, more nuanced, self. Simien masterfully shows Sam's uneasiness at being made to stand in the spotlight as the face of a revolution conflicting with her reluctance to speak up and put herself first because of her dedication to the idea that to achieve equality, black people need to constantly battle against white people and white culture. By bringing Sam to the point at which she realizes this is a mistake, Simien effectively denounces polarizing thinking in terms of race and delivers a message of tolerance to the film's all-inclusive audience.