In Hollywood, rage + PR = $$$

Tessa Thompson

On Tuesday we discusses the politically engaged actress Tessa Thompson and her definitive movie project, Dear White People (2014), a story about black students at an Ivy League college that Time Out hailed for its “rage.”

Needless to say, Dear White People was a story of oppression. The only real difference between 12 Years a Slave and Dear White People, you see, is that college takes only four years. 

Tessa, the thinker

The Chicago Tribune pretty much agreed with Time Outs praise for the movie’s rage, but put it more simply: “Dear White People isn’t perfect. And yet the flaws really don’t matter.” Of course not – not when you’re dealing with racial rage! Toss out the critics’ notepads, bring on the awards! Neatly skirting the question of aesthetic merit, A.O. Scott of the New York Times took a similar line, instructing his readers: “You want to see this movie, and you will want to talk about it afterward, even if the conversation feels a little awkward. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.” (Scott didn’t promise – note well – that readers would actually enjoy the movie.) Not to be outdone by these other outlets, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post gave a thumbs-up to the film’s celebration of dormitory segregation, an arrangement that, Hornaday maintained, provides “solidarity and protection.” 

Tessa in a $12,500 Gucci dress (“available at select Gucci stores nationwide and gucci.com”)

As noted, Tessa Thompson loved Dear White People. In 2016, she told The Cut that it was “an indictment of Hollywood,” where young black actresses often get cast as “the sassy black friend.” Never mind that the film was distributed by Lionsgate, a major Hollywood player. In any event, while Thompson felt she was rebelling against Hollywood, she wasn’t interested in rebelling against Hollywood-style PR: for the article in The Cut, she posed in a $3,200 Marc Jacobs sweater, a $2,208 Marc Jacobs skirt, an $11,500 Michael Kors dress, a $3,590 Ralph Lauren dress, and a $12,500 Gucci dress. Talk about overcoming!

Thompson has continued to fight the intrepid fight against The Man – not only in the name of blacks but in the name of women. In October 2017, she told the New York Daily News that she’d pitched “an all-female Marvel movie” to the head of Marvel Movies. In January, she celebrated the Time’s Up campaign against sexual abuse by posting on social media a picture of herself with such female stars as Laura Dern and Brie Larson.

Lena Dunham (dress price unavailable at press time)

And that’s where the trouble started. Also in the picture, as it happened, was Lena Dunham, who until recently was the very personification of young American women’s empowerment. But in these Reign of Terror-like times, when today’s feminist heroine can tomorrow be sent to the gallows, Dunham had become persona non grata in the Time’s Up crowd after she defended a writer of her TV series, Girls, from rape accusations. When Dunham, too, shared the picture on social media, it was Thompson who called her out, telling the world that while she and the other women in the photo had spent two months working on the Time’s Up campaign, Dunham had played no part in their activities. The plain implication was that Dunham was trying to take credit for other women’s feminist labors.  

Sweater, $3200; skirt, $2208

After receiving some backlash for her assault on the previously untouchable Dunham, Thompson apologized. Then, after a number of women spoke up on Thompson’s behalf, many of them complaining that the women’s movement still privileges white women, Thompson revisited her apology, saying that she hadn’t really meant to apologize for calling out Dunham but had intended rather “to re-center the conversation” around the fact that many women of color “don’t feel safe and seen.” 

The Dunham dustup made a lot of news, but it wasn’t even Tessa’s biggest event  in January. Also in that month, Variety featured this spectacular headline: “Jane Fonda, Gloria Allred, Tessa Thompson Slam Trump at Sundance Women’s Rally.”

Jane Fonda at the Sundance Women’s Rally

Forget her acting career: Thompson has made it into the Holy Trinity of Twenty-first Century Feminism, along with Hollywood’s favorite multiple Oscar-winning socialist billionaire (Fonda) and California’s leading anti-patriarchy shakedown artist (Allred). Eat her dust, Dunham! Tessa’s the new reigning princess of Hollywood feminism. Why, after all, should the face of feminism be white?

This, of course, is what happens when group identity takes center stage: as sure as night follows day, the white woman shaking her fist on the anti-male barricades is destined to be knocked off her perch by a woman of color. But after that, how long will it take before she, in turn, is dethroned by a black lesbian or a disabled Muslim grandmother? Stay tuned.

Tessa Thompson, actress — and activist!

Tessa Thompson

Born in L.A. to an Afro-Panamanian father and a Euro-Mexican mother (these adjectives, which we’ve never seen before, are taken from her Wikipedia page), Tessa Thompson, age 34, has become a big star in recent years. After appearing on TV series like Cold Case, Grey’s Anatomy, and Heroes, she was in the big-budget movies Selma (2014), Creed (2015), and the Marvel comic-book feature Thor: Ragnarok (2017). She’s won acting awards at the American Black Film Festival, the Black Reel Awards, and the African-American Film Critics Association.

And like many other young Hollywood actresses, she’s into politics. Just ask Natalie Portman, who recently told Elle that Thompson is “someone you can go dance with or laugh with, or talk about politics.” How wonderful! Who doesn’t want to talk about politics with a Hollywood actress?

A promotional photo for Dear White People

So far, the defining picture of her career would seem to be Dear White People, a 2014 comedy-drama about black students at an Ivy League college. Just to be clear, these kids are going to an Ivy League college, and we’re supposed to see them as oppressed – and to see the film as some kind of inspired statement about racial relations in America. Thompson herself certainly thought so when she perused the script. She told Elle that after reading it, she “had a burning to be involved.”

With Teyonah Parris (right), promoting Dear White People

A brief detour into Dear White People, just so you have an idea of what kind of acting jobs get Thompson excited. In this movie, she played the heroine, Sam, a campus radical who “causes a stir” by “criticizing white people and the racist transgressions at Winchester.” What kind of racist transgressions? Well, let’s just say that the film’s climax centers on a group of white students who decide to throw a party in blackface.

Thompson at Sundance

Yes, blackface. Now, you may ask: at what Ivy League college in this day and age would white students actually hold a blackface party? Don’t pose such questions. What are you, a racist? And don’t dare to suggest that Dear White People, which was (predictably) a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, is, from start to finish, an example of racial grievance-mongering gone amok. No, you’re supposed to echo the Hollywood line that stuff like this, however stale and poorly made, is actually courageous and pathbreaking.

That’s certainly the line that most of the high-profile reviewers took. Even as it admitted that the film was a total mess, Time Out praised it for, well, making all the right victim-group noises: “The plot meanders, the characters don’t come into focus until fairly late in the game, and the script’s tunnel-visioned unwillingness to wrestle with the class and gender issues inherent in its story can be disappointing. But where it scores big is its wealth of ideas – visual, emotional, cultural – and its deep well of bitter, voice-of-experience rage.”

Rage! That’s the ticket. Forget plot, characters, theme: a “deep well” of racial rage can overcome any flaws.

More on Thursday.