An unexpected thing occurred while watching Justin Simien brilliant comedy Dear White People. A wave of emotion washed over me, one that is tough to put in words. Sitting in a cavernous theatre with six other individuals, I was instantly transported back to my own university days. It was as if a time capsule had opened exposing all the awkward insecurities that came with my struggles to fit in. Similar to the characters that inhabit Simien’s film, I attended a university whose population was predominantly white. Even as a black student I was in the minority of the minority from a cultural demographic standpoint.
I was fortune enough to never have endured the type of racially fueled parties that permeate the film and, as shown in the sobering end credits, universities across America. Yet I identified deeply with the characters as their individual plights mirrored my own. While I will never know what it is like to grow up as a gay male, I instantly understood the sense of isolation that a character like Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) experienced by not feeling fully at home with either the black student union or the white students. I reflected on moments where, similarly to Colandrea ‘Coco’ Connors (Teyonah Parris), I had to temper my choice of conversation topics in certain groups as to not come off as the person who “plays the race card”; the times where I got strange looks from fellow black students for dating a white woman just like Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell); and the times where I channeled my inner Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) and was baffled that others did not pick up on the inherent racism in certain beloved films.
Taking its name from the campus radio show hosted by young social activist Samantha, Dear White People is a smart and scathing look at race, sex, and power within the confines of the institution of higher learning. Set at the fictional Winchester University, Samantha’s popular show, which aims to expose the cultural hypocrisies that exist within the seemingly accepting school, is the talk of the Ivy League campus. Though Samantha’s commentary is mercilessly biting, the bulk of the white students find it amusing. They embrace her rants with that pseudo-progressive “clearly she is talking about someone other than me” mentality. When Samantha’s frank manner results in her being elected the head of her predominantly black residence, much to the chagrin of All-American former head Troy, some are leery of the disturbance her new power will cause.
One person in particular is not too fond of Samantha’s new role. Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the politically incorrect editor of the college humor magazine, is itching to see Samantha get her comeuppance. As his magazine’s annual Halloween bash approaches, and desperate for a satirical theme, Kurt finds his inspiration in Samantha’s show. Deciding to host a party where guest are encouraged to appropriate all things black culture, Kurt sets in motion a racially charged night that none of the students or faculty at Winchester will soon forget.
Daring the viewer to step in the boxing ring of stinging jokes, Dear White People does not hold back any punches. It is a blisteringly brave debut film that is exactly what this generation needs regardless of whether they realize it or not. It is both funny and uncomfortable in the best kind of way. The film is about more than just pointing out the differences amongst the cultures; its intent is to reshape the way we look at others in the first place. People, like life itself, are not strictly black or white. They are complex beings who all share a desire to be accepted for their own unique traits. Simien’s film is an example of this. Just like his lead character Samantha, Simien’s brash and witty approach may lead some to instantly compare his work to that of Spike Lee, but he is more interested in following the teachings of Ingmar Bergman.
The characters are richly layered individuals who have their flaws, but still remain funny and relatable. You feel the weight of the world on Samantha’s shoulders, even when she does not want to be the “angry black woman” for everybody. You cheer for Lionel’s “Do the Right Thing” moment, and conversely feel sad about Coco’s “Harriet Tubman” comment, because Simien allows the viewer to spent plenty of time with those being marginalized. Coco’s journey especially resonates because she essentially becomes everything she cannot stand in hopes of pleasing a Hollywood producer (Better Off Ted’s scene-stealer Malcolm Barrett). Like Lionel and Samantha to a certain extent, Coco is never given the opportunity within the climate of Winchester to be her true self, she is constantly trying to live up to the standards that she thinks others want her to be.
Though firing on all cylinders, the one minor snag to Justin Simien’s film is that, at times, it does try to extend its reach a little too wide. The decades old rivalry between the president of the university (Peter Syvertsen) and the dean (Dennis Haysbert), including the ramifications it has on the university, does not carry the same level of impact as the conflict amongst the students. While not all of the political jockeying for position at the administration level connects, there is more than enough in Dear White People that will have people both laughing and talking.
Dear White People is one of those films that really needs to be seen and discussed. The racially fueled humour does not try to sugarcoat the issue, nor does it attempt to lay blame on one specific culture. Instead it documents how much more work still needs to be done in regards to achieving cross-cultural harmony. The sobering end credit sequence, that documents the various real-life universities that recently held culturally insensitive theme parties, are a great example of this. Intelligent and thought-provoking, Dear White People is one of the most relevant and effective comedies to come out in years.
I almost thought it didn’t need to be a comedy/satire … some of its exaggerations were actual things that I’ve seen/heard of happening at colleges. But definitely a great discussion starter, warts and all.
The issues are easier for general audiences to digest if presented in a comedic fashion. The film is constructed in such a way that it would have played just as well if told as a serious drama. However, if it was told in a serious tone, I think some would argue, wrongly mind you, that the film is too preachy.
Hopefully it finds more of an audience on video. The meager box office numbers make me think it just preached to the choir in theaters.
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