Directed by: Justin Simien.
Written by: Justin Simien.
Starring: Tyler James Williams (Lionel Higgins), Tessa Thompson (Sam White), Kyle Gallner (Kurt Fletcher), Teyonah Parris (Colandrea 'Coco' Conners), Brandon P Bell (Troy Fairbanks), Brittany Curran (Sofia Fletcher), Justin Dobies (Gabe), Marque Richardson (Reggie), Malcolm Barrett (Helmut West), Dennis Haysbert (Dean Fairbanks), Peter Syvertsen (President Fletcher), Brandon Alter (George), Kate Gaulke (Annie).
Justin Simien’s debut film Dear White People is a smart, funny satire on race in Obamas America, that doesn’t pretend to have any answers, and doesn’t really blame anyone for everything that is still wrong in America in regards to race, and neither does it let anyone off the hook. It takes place on the campus of fictional Ivy League University, Winchester, The school is still largely white, although they pride themselves on their diversity – with the President, and many of the white students, seemingly believing the lie that we now live in a post racial society. The black students are not fooled however. The movie gets its title from the radio show – and internet videos – by Sam White (Tessa Thompson, in what should be a star making performance) where she addresses the white students on campus and calls them out on all the condescending ways that they show their tolerance and acceptance of blacks – and black culture.
Sam is a self-stylized militant – one who wouldn’t be out of place in an early Spike Lee movie, like School Daze (an obvious inspiration for this film). If Sam doesn’t quite have the same kind of overt racism to fight against, she still has her share of beefs with the ways things are being run. Sam, who is bi-racial, may in fact be overcompensating for her own insecurities – she hides her white boyfriend, and her love of Taylor Swift (and Ingmar Bergman) as she makes her speeches, plans her protests and makes her militant films for class – like Rebirth of a Nation, a silent movie parody with white people, in white face, crying over the Obama administration (it should be noted that a student film that Spike Lee made while at NYU imagined an all-black version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation).
Surrounding Sam are a few different black characters – all of whom struggle with identity, much like Sam does, but in completely different ways. Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) wants to be the anti-Sam – she wants to assimilate herself into white culture, and essentially become just like them – and resents the fact that people see her as different. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the popular, charming poli-sci major, who dad is the Dean (Dennis Haysbert) – who has big plans for her son, as he basically wants him to be the next Obama – something that he never got a chance to do. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is black and gay, but doesn’t fit in with either group – when he has problems with his dorm, the Dean suggests him moving into the historically black dorm, but Lionel at first resists – saying the worst part of his high school years were the other black students. Lionel, at first, doesn’t much care about the racial politics in school – he just wants to be seen as Lionel. The major white character is Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who runs a Harvard Lampoon-like paper on campus, and it must be said is kind of an asshole, and as close as the movie gets to a racist character (although he doesn’t see himself that way). It is a horrifying, but all too real, that his staff throws that brings the climax of the movie coming. Kurt is the son of the University President – which is why he can get away with everything he does.
The movie is extremely entertaining, and often quite funny, but there are real issues underneath that is sure to inspire a lot of post-viewing debate among viewers, which will lead to some uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations. While the movie is called Dear White People, and certainly addresses issues like institutionalized racism and cultural appropriation, that goes well beyond appreciation, and into racist territory as well, Simien certainly doesn’t let the black characters off the hook either. The movie is largely about the pressures black people place on each other – the desire to be seen as black enough by some, and not too black by others. The movie also addresses the black community’s stereotypical homophobic attitudes. The films of Spike Lee hang large over the film – aside from the already mentioned references, Simien also recycles one of Spike Lee’s most controversial remarks – that black people cannot be racist, because racism implies systematic power to back it up, which black people do not have. But like the films of Lee, Dear White People is a lot more thoughtful than it will likely be given credit for – a film that asks real questions of all of its characters – and of its audience. You may not come away agreeing with everything the movie has to say – Simien has structured it so that the movie deliberately contradicts itself, so you’re never quite sure where he comes down on any given issue. I don’t say this as an insult to the movie – but rather to praise it. It asks questions that need to be asked – but doesn’t pretend to have the answers.