“Might I also remind you that I read your entire fifteen-page unsolicited treatise on why the Gremlins is actually about suburban white fear of black culture.”
There is a moment in Justin Simien’s feature debut, Dear White People, where the President of a fictional Ivy League college tells one of his students that racism is over in America. Simian makes it clear through this witty and satirical film that it’s far from true. Now before you stop reading and discard this film as yet another preachy and formulaic film focusing on racism, I want to say that this film is completely unique and original. There are different view points presented in Dear White People and very sharp dialogues, but Simien never takes sides on the issue and lets the audience make their own conclusions. There are four distinct characters in the film and they each have their own personal opinions about racism and view it differently. The way they interact with each other and discuss their differing opinions is what gives this film a life of its own and a unique feeling to it. My only complaint is that there is a lot of different things going on and everything seems rushed (the script was originally over 200 pages long).
Dear White People is a stylish film with clever satire and some fun and memorable characters. The story is fictional, but the plot takes several elements from a real life party that took place at the University of California, San Diego in 2010 where one African American ran the event, but it was attended by predominantly white students. In Dear White People the controversy centers on a black-face party that takes place in an Ivy League college (Winchester University) which is thrown by white students. The film then jumps back five weeks to explore the events that led to the party and that is where we are introduced to Samantha (Tessa Thompson), a student hosting a radio show on campus titled “Dear White People.” She surprisingly becomes president of a mostly black residential hall, beating the former president who’s the Student Dean’s son, Troy (Brand Bell). She is against the new university policy of diversification of the residential halls and wants to keep the house exclusive for black students considering they are a minority on campus. The other two main characters we are introduced to are Coco (Teyonah Parris) who believes she has more in common with the white students and is obsessed with becoming famous, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams) who is sort of an outcast writer who hasn’t found his place in the school. They are four clearly distinct characters who are trying to pave their way in college. The film focuses on the interactions they have with each other and their different views towards racism.
Tessa Thompson is the heart and soul of this film as the rebellious student who is always delivering clever lines in her radio show. Tyler James Williams delivers some of the funnier moments while Brand Bell has the more dramatic scenes as he shares some intense scenes with his father played by Dennis Haysbert. Teyonah Parris does a fine job balancing the drama and humor. What all these characters seem to have in common despite their different views is that they are hiding who they really are. They are afraid to simply be who they are because they feel they have a reputation or code to live by. Somewhere in their struggle to figure out how to live and fit into their groups they have lost their own personal identity. This is one of those films that can be studied in class and generate a lot of different conversations and debates about the issues of race because it never takes a clear side.