By Jamie Bircoll, Daily Film Editor
Published October 26, 2014
“My dad is from here (Detroit.) The last time I was here, I was like 12, ” said actor Marque Richardson. “He grew up on Chalmers and Warner? Which I think is east side.”
He might mean Chalmers and Warren, but it’s not a detail which bogs him down. Richardson is a man of high energy, and right now, he could not be more enthusiastic to discuss his latest project, the satirical drama “Dear White People.”
The film, which opened at the State Theater this past weekend, illuminates the plight of a small, but vocal minority population at a fictional Ivy League school.
“When I read the script, I was attracted to the three dimensional aspects of these characters. The flaws, the complexity, everything — I loved it!” Richardson said at a roundtable media interview. “You don’t get a chance too often to dive into something like that.”
Richardson’s filmography ranges from one-off stints on TV shows like “ER” and “7th Heaven,” to more recent, recurring roles in “True Blood” and “The Newsroom.” But “Dear White People” might be his biggest, and certainly his most complex, role to date, as the militant activist Reggie — a “modern day Malcolm X” as Richardson describes. It’s a role that demands a balance between sharp comic timing and dead-eyed seriousness, although Richardson wasn’t entirely sure how to play it.
“I would listen to Malcolm X speeches and all this early ’80s and ’90s rap and hip hop, Public Enemy and N.W.A,” Richardson said. “I took it so serious, and when I saw it for the first time at Sundance (Film Festival), the audience is just dying laughing at certain parts, and I’m like ‘Wait, I was trying to be serious!’”
“Dear White People” is certainly a funny film, but it comes with a bite. Like all good satire, the film critiques society through a salvo of mockery, with shell after shell hammering modern racism, classism, intolerance and the overall failure to communicate. Sometimes it’s dead-on; sometimes it’s a bit tense. Richardson cites one particular scene where a group of activists declare “Fuck Tyler Perry” when discussing the films being screened at the local movie theater.
“I read that and I said, ‘Oh, all right. Well here we go,’” Richardson said. “But (director Justin Simien) wasn’t taking a jab at Tyler Perry with that line; he was taking a jab at Hollywood’s thinking people of color, that all we want to see is Tyler Perry. But what about the rest of us who want to see these black art-house, smart films?”
But the film extends beyond race — it’s about belonging, discovering oneself at college, the first opportunity one has to forge his/her individuality. These are hardships that are universal, and reveal a heart in the firebrand.
“I’m not just interested in black stories. What resonated with me is, this is a story about identity and identity crisis, and really giving an eye into a new level of consciousness, in terms of (characters) you might identify with,” Richardson said.
Still, there’s something frustrating about the film, for people of all races; there’s something incendiary about a title “Dear White People.” It’s a strong PR move, gaining the film far greater exposure than a typical film of this size, with no stars and a small budget.
“The title’s job was to spark controversy, to get people in the seats,” Richardson said. “Justin did his job: to start a conversation, start a controversy and to do it in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
The film wisely doesn’t provide any answers to that dialogue, though, opting to illuminate a difficult matter and to let the audience decide where to go next.
“Where do you go with it? It’s whatever the people do, however you feel about it and what those conversations lead to in this, which I don’t believe in, ‘post racial America,’” Richardson said. “We can’t give the answers — we don’t have the answers. This film is a Black experience, it’s not the Black experience.”
The hope is all of this leads to more films like “Dear White People,” ones that are willing to push buttons to spur the conversation further, the kind of films that Spike Lee made in the late 1980s and early 1990s; Richardson knows there’s talent out there, and expects indie black cinema to reappear in the mainstream.
“This has been going on since 1915 with ‘Birth of a Nation,’” Richardson said. “And since then there’s been and will be a resurgence, an upsurgence … is that even a word? Fuck it; let’s make it a word. We made up a word today! Upsurgence!”