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?
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.”
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.
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.