I have a paradoxical love for Dear White People. On one hand, I wish writer/director Justin Simien had tackled such serious subject matter further along in his carer. On the other, I wonder if a more established director would have taken so many risks. A world post-Spike Lee – a man more concerned with strangely esoteric commentary and Korean action film reboots these days – means few in black cinema are challenging stagnant racial protocol. And so Simien, for all his amateur trappings, is a distinct breath of a fresh air.
His film isn’t as edgy as anything Lee’s done, but it is a good first step. Simien immediately takes off the kid gloves in the opening scene of the film. Four black Winchester University students listen to four different broadcasters delivering the same news story. The reporters deliver a slightly different spin for each student. Through this arguably on-the-nose introduction, Simien establishes complex layering within black social strata.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a radical activist who hosts the radio show from which the film takes its name. She is on a mission to restore black pride to its former Panther-like glory. Along the way, she takes white society to task for not recognizing its privilege.
Conversely, Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Tayonah Parris of Mad Men) is an image-obsessed young woman whose permanent look of disgust indicates nothing but distaste for traditional black culture. Her only interest is to distance herself from what she sees as a long and self-destructive history.
Coco briefly crosses paths with the preppy Troy (Brandon P. Bell), a bright student who can’t seem to shake the well-to-do specter of his father, Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haybert). Like Coco, Troy sees conflict between black culture and the expectations put upon him by others (in this case, his dad). He soon comes into contact with Lionel Higgins, played by the capable Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris fame, who helps him realize where his values really lie.
Meanwhile, Higgins struggles as a closeted journalist with a torrid past in the black community. In many ways, Higgins becomes the heart of the film. That comes to a head through his and Fairbanks’ tenuous friendship.
There is little subtlety to these characters when we meet them. Each seems to represent Simien’s one-note talking points. Yet over time they become mere launching off points for the writer/director; Lionel, Coco, Troy and Sam all gain nuance over time.
The transformation comes with the realization that these students are flawed. The hypocrisy of their world views comes to light, albeit in different ways. For example, Sam refers to Barack Obama as “only half-black” in the first few moments we spend with her. Later, she expresses dismay when her black friends arrive late to an important assembly. She states that her peers shouldn’t run on “colored people time.”
In these moments, Sam displays her misplaced activist rhetoric; she wants to reclaim black identity, but only the parts of the culture that she deems worthwhile. Weed, lateness and light skin are unacceptable. She defines herself by how other people see her and her community.
But that stance is immediately called into question. Sam is a light-skinned woman. How can she be so callous about the president’s “blackness” according to his skin color? Moreover, her use of the word “colored” to describe her friends is disparaging, antiquated and clearly meant to evoke collective memories of racial prejudice.
Sam is the kind of person who believes in black culture, but still suffers under the same stigma as her counterpart, Coco. In that way they are kindred spirits: two women afraid of how their own community represents their identities to the rest of the world. They share little interaction onscreen but their thematic interplay drives the central message of the film.
These kinds of intricacies make Dear White People a cut above usual socially minded fare. Simien doesn’t paint broad strokes. He asks the audiences to pick a side and then systematically critiques those viewpoints. Sam wrestles with her own views: sometimes at the behest of her white boyfriend, sometimes at the demand of her black peers and sometimes of her own volition.
And like Sam, the other three protagonists begin to look inwards. This makes Lionel, Troy and Coco complex. They transition from political mouthpieces into real human beings, even if they don’t all find enlightenment by the finale.
Simien’s amateur hand does show from time to time. In one particularly odd moment, a shot follows Troy and his girlfriend, Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), up a flight of stairs and onto to a balcony. The shot then cuts from a low angle shot to a reverse shot, placing Troy and Sofia on opposite sides of the frame as it breaks the 180 degree rule. The shot switches for a final time back to the low angle view from the ground up to the balcony, once again swapping Troy and Sofia.
The scene gets stranger as the scene cuts away from the balcony to zoom in on another character on the ground floor (Kurt Fletcher, played by Kyle Gallner) as he talks to Troy. Then the camera cuts back to Troy on the balcony, and then to Kurt once again mid-zoom. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this kind of editing before, but it didn’t seem to add to the scene. It left me disoriented.
The moment was so bizarre that it completely distracted from the conversation between Troy, Sofia and Kurt. In a film where dialogue is so important, that’s never a good thing. Thankfully, this oddity seems to be more of an aberration than a recurring motif, and Simien slips into an unobtrusive groove with cinematographer Topher Osborn for most of the rest of the movie.
For a film called Dear White People, the great irony of Simien’s feature-length debut is that it speaks just as much if not more to the black community as it does to white audiences. Perhaps that’s because it’s not all that difficult to find issue with the dominant social power in this country. A simple slideshow after the film of real blackface frat parties at well-respected universities around the United States says it all. Racism and prejudice operate in full force in America; just point your camera in the right direction and you’ll find your proof.
Dear White People also isn’t as funny as its brilliant viral marketing. The film is a biting satire of racial communication that relies more on making points than generating laughs. I suspect different folks will cheer and smile at different moments (and indeed a disturbing trend has already reared its heads at some screenings), but the film is by in large more thought-provoking than anything else.
Simien ultimately bites off a bit too much with his debut. In just 108 minutes, he audaciously tries to address everything from homophobia in the black community to how black folks are portrayed in the media. The film loses some focus in the process. Still, it is refreshing to see someone try to deal with these issues.
The writer/director’s minor shortcomings aside, Dear White People is a piercing social commentary fit for all audiences. To white people, Simien sheds a simple but harsh light on the insidious racism that still plagues college campuses, the ostensible national bastions of progressive, educated thought. And to black viewers, Simien calls for reflection.
“Who are you?” he asks. “And who made that decision for you?”
Movie Verdict: Win