“Dear White People” is a movie with a lot to say. On the one hand, it’s an ensemble dramedy depicting college life; on the other, it’s a highly effective satire of the notion of a post-racial society.
The film follows a quadrant of black students who attend the esteemed Winchester University. Each character offers a different perspective on the issue of being a black student in a predominantly white institution. There’s Reggie (Marque Richardson), the Dean’s overachieving son who begins to resist his father’s demands. Lionel (Tyler Williams) is the confused nerd who abhors labels but deep down seems to want to find one. Coco (Teyonah Parris of “Mad Men”) is of the jealous, popular breed, who wants more than anything to get a reality TV deal.
And then there’s Samantha White, played by Tessa Thompson. She begins the film as the potent voice of resistance against the detached Winchester academy and its student body, leading the radio show from which the film gets its name. But as her movement gains unexpected success, winning her an election she believed she would lose and inspiring mass protest, Samantha’s own world begins to unravel. Thompson is the film’s greatest asset. She has a keen sense of voice and presence necessary to the character.
These multiple perspectives are vital for “Dear White People” to work. The film does not preach about race or campus life, but allows its diverse personalities to give their own conflicting voices. The film gives more screen time to some of those voices than others (Samantha’s is the loudest while Lionel’s arc is most integral to the film), but it never gives us grounds to say that one of the four is right and the others are entirely wrong.
The movie is not about racism… at least not directly. It’s more about identity. Each member of the cast struggles with his or her own identity as the plot progresses and the characters’ self-perception evolves, and in the world of Winchester University, identity and race are inseparable. Even Lionel, who does not want to be identified by any one label, cannot escape it.
The film is written and directed by Justin Simien, who crowdfunded the project, and it’s quite clear that he drew from his own experiences as a gay black student. As horrible as some of the racist remarks from the ensemble of “Dear White People” are, one gets the sense that it’s all been heard hundreds of times before. In fact, the ending credits are interspersed with real headlines of college frats hosting offensively themed parties with blackface and insensitivity galore, paralleling what happens in the plot of “Dear White People.”
The script is clever and earnest, but more than anything, it’s really funny. It takes what could be heavy, uncomfortable subject matter and allows its audience to laugh at it, but not enough to entirely prevent them from squirming.
“Racism is over in America,” Winchester’s president spouts. “The only people thinking about it are, I don’t know, Mexicans, probably.”
That line, like so many others, is delivered with equal hilarity and tragedy, making it perfect for a satire.
Simien also knows how to frame a shot. Many of the film’s sequences are gorgeous to watch. The film keeps a distinctive style (more often than not including slow motion) that melds well with the satirical tone. The film’s soundtrack alternates between a classical setlist befitting Winchester and a more traditional score. The classical fare is often more effective, as it mocks the school’s pompous atmosphere.
The very setting of Winchester is another key to the film’s success. It’s an Ivy League-esque school that looks like it’s in southern California, creating the illusion that it could exist anywhere. And in reality, there’s a little of Winchester in every university in America; it’s a place relevant to any institution that boasts its diversity levels.
In the end, the film is not entirely condemning of white people or college administrations. It has choice words for racists and insensitive idiots, certainly, but the movie works just as much as a conversation starter as anything else. It is directed toward black students as much as it is Caucasian presidents. We all have something to learn from “Dear White People,” and the film wishes to teach, not to chastise.
“Dear White People” is powerfully funny and insightful. It contains a strong collection of talent, and it never loses momentum from beginning to end amongst its twists and turns. For his first feature film, Simien has delivered quite an impressive project, and I intend to keep a close eye on his future career.