1. Woman with a Camera: In a film which seeks to expose a great number of social issues, giving multiple characters ways of telling and managing their own stories allowed the story to keep moving and these storytellers to keep developing without pausing too much for explanatory notes. When Sam White (Tessa Thompson) holds up her camera, the camera represents her power, her voice. What she’s shut out from saying is exposed as long as she captures it: she’s watching, remembering, then piecing the story together. The camera allows her to lead the story and tell the story all at once. This is very powerful because Sam White is a woman of color, biracial, an artist, a revolutionary. Historically, she represents much of those who were told to stay silent, but here she is, a leader on two fronts.
2. The Critique of the Selfie: Coco Conners (Tayonah Parris) is the character in DWP’s amazingly multifaceted storyline who holds up a mirror to both herself and the audience. The audience finds her brutally honest at best and, at worst, they view her as a villain. A villain, because she is unabashedly obsessed with her own objectives, which, in this case are 100% about social mobility. She says and does things that moral people don’t do to move up, only pausing to consider if it’s worth it when she’s alone with her reflection. She unfailingly chooses “do it” each time. Because Coco toys with generally shameful (“sell-out”) behavior to get ahead, she walks all the lines around race, class, gender. She wants what she wants, and won’t settle for being stuck with the life society assumes she fits into just because she’s a black woman. In my view, Coco is the queen of the film, the lone representative of social conscience turning in on itself via need, want, and ego. She’s a little bit of all of us, that individual who’s ambition burns brighter than judgment, no matter what she actually stands for….even if it’s questionable. She has the ability to evolve because she doesn’t take other’s views into account.
3. Intergenerational Tension: Father’s and sons, kids and their parents: rebellion. Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) believes in his son, Troy (Brandon P Bell), partly because he sees himself in him. This reflection in his kid’s face is also the reason why he doubts him and doubts the world he moves through. It’s the same world he was raised in. He doesn’t detect change (though we recognize from the outside that this is partly because he exists as an enforcer of the status quo). Fairbanks maintains that his son is his image, but since this is logically unfair, he settles on pushing him like a mere extension of himself. Maybe the best part, who will experience a greater level of success. Of course, this leads to his son’s quiet frustration. His girlfriends, his college, major, clothes, haircut are his father’s choices. He obediently follows the orders. He never openly goes against the path laid out for him, which is an interesting twist in a story with a theme of revolution. Maybe there will be a sequel where we get to see him stand up for himself more, but in this feature he’s a reminder that we don’t always do that. Some of us are led, and that’s part of life.
4. Loners and Boners: Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is the character that every other character dislikes for mysterious reasons… Mysterious because he’s the most likable character to the people watching the movie. He’s funny, observant, kind, adorable and he has an active, super intelligent brain. In spite of these qualities, it seems he’s an outcast, namely for being gay. However, the script explores the difficulty of being between “lines”: bookish, black gay kids are fetishized, ogled and singled-out at best, but not easily accepted into any one group. Lionel can’t sit with the Black Student Union kids because they don’t trust him, he can’t fit in with the frat boys because they humiliate him, and when he does find a level of acceptance at the school paper, the guy who’s into him is against him getting a haircut (“don’t you dare” kiss kiss :-/) and tells him he needs him because he’s the only black writer on campus that would write for the paper. Hm. All Lionel wants is a place to sit comfortably among his peers so he can do what interests him at school (duh: a student). This doesn’t happen until he finds his voice in the revolutionary activities on campus. Chaos puts all the lines between the various groups into perspective… and they’re invisible.
5. Group Hug? : Nobody comes together in the end. There’s no mushy group hug. There is not high-fiving, or singing, dancing, or any slapstick display of group bonding. If anything, certain characters get the recognition and respect or acceptance they were yearning for and others learn their lesson. Even more progressively, some barely change at all. Some viewers might feel this is unsatisfying, but the film itself is plenty entertaining to handle the less-than-thrilling final moments (by “thrilling” I men like a rollercoaster, not good- it’s great). I really like that there’s a respectful close, with Sam opening up, Lionel coming into his own, Coco finally asking the right questions, and Troy predictably riffing off of his father’s stern guidance.