Dear White People
If there’s one glaring problem with Dear White People, it’s that the people who desperately need to hear what it’s trying to say won’t understand the point. Scratch that; they won’t even see the film. Oh, who am I kidding; they won’t even realize that a great, smart, original Black film like this one exists.
On the surface, writer/director Justin Simien tackles the manifold experiences of being a Black face in a White space, specifically the pseudo-Ivy liberal arts Winchester University. There’s some merit to asking why tell a Black story in a Predominantly White Institution instead of a Historically Black College or University — for more, see here — but given that America is, by and large, a White space, this is kind of a more fitting microcosm.
And yes, before you even think of asking, there’s more than one “Black experience”.
Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is a button-pusher; the film draws its name from her radio show skewering the many microaggressions that still exist in the so-called “post-racial America”. At the urging of Reggie (Marque Richardson) — more of an agitator than Sam is — she runs for head of the historically-Black Armstrong-Parker House, seeking to reverse the recent policy of random dorm assignments that stands to disperse a growing power center of Black students. And, surprisingly to even her, she beats the incumbent BMOC Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell).
Troy, for his part, is growing disillusioned with the prospect of a life in law and public service as envisioned by his father, the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). He would rather join Pastiche — Winchester’s answer to Harvard’s Lampoon — which means winning over Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the privileged son of the university’s president (Peter Syvartsen, doing a damn good John C. McGinley impression).
Meanwhile, Colandrea “Coco” Conners envies the notoriety Sam’s controversy brings. She wants fame and fortune, which a shot at a reality show might bring her. Egging Kurt on might lead to just the opportunity she can capitalize on.
And in the middle of everything is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay, black, nerdy kid who is equally bemused by everyone around him and doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.
Technically, Dear White People is impressive work for Simien’s first time out. I might question some of his compositions, but he’s on fundamentally more solid footing than a lot of journeyman directors out there. The screenplay zips along, crackling with dry wit.
But more important than the film’s technical merits are the ideas it voices. The characters are complex and multifaceted, not yielding to simple descriptions or clichés. The experiences they embody are no less varied, and to be honest I am nowhere near the right person to even start unpacking them here. For that, I will point you first to my friend Dominic Griffin’s review — along with his whole “Dark Gable Presents” series — and suggest you seek out even more critics of color to read their opinions, each informed by their own experiences.
And please, if nothing else, don’t be surprised when they don’t all agree.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.