Dear White People
Directed by Justin Simien
Released in 2014
The title is what it is just to get you talking, and hopefully paying. Dear White People is a far more diplomatic, unguarded and ideologically adrift movie than its name or the thousands of defensive (and racist) comments below its YouTube trailer may imply.
This movie arrives at a time when issues of social justice, and the intersection of those issues, has finally, it seems, reached the mainstream, and writer-director Justin Simien packs so much of this political zeitgeist into his debut that it can be said to be, sight unseen, The Movie for Our Time. But while some of its strands wobble or else lapse into polemics, Dear White People assumes a freewheeling, even self-effacing pose in the face of this responsibility, for it knows it is a thoroughly college movie, in both subject and style.
In this film, the world entirely exists on the campus of Winchester University, a sprawl of gothic architecture and manicured landscape bound to be familiar to any Ivy League student. The student body is a white one, with exceptions, of course. We follow four of these exceptions: Biracial activist and filmmaker Sam White (Tessa Thompson); Troy (Brandon P. Bell), suave president of the predominantly black Armstrong Parker House and son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert, excellent); Colandera “Coco” Chanders (Teyonah Parris), a South Side girl with an outsize personality she is pitching to a reality TV producer; and budding writer Lionel Higgens (Tyler James Williams), who is timidly gay and sports a gnarly afro that, in his words, doubles as “a black hole for white people’s fingers.”
Sam hosts the titular radio show, where she addresses the pale majority with such proclamations as, “Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” On top of everything else she is doing, like making the whiteface satire “Rebirth of a Nation” for her film major, Sam runs for president of the Armstrong Parker House on the platform to “Bring Black Back,” though she perhaps has ulterior motives because Troy is an old flame. Surprisingly, she wins, and her outspoken, self-segregating reforms exile the bratty Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), who is naturally the university’s president son, as well as the soft-spoken Lionel and lead to mounting conflict with the administration, her peers and eventually herself.
But enough of plot — Dear White People elaborates itself more through minute human interactions than through its overarching plot, which it only debatably has. All the aforementioned characters have face time with one another, sometimes in lecture halls and other times in bed. In case the poster and trailer have not made it clear, this is a sexy movie, with attractive people filmed under expressive, not necessarily realistic lighting set-ups. Simien has an eye and ear for sensitive interaction, which notably does not survive in the political arena, even on a college campus.
If this film gets at one of its issues with something resembling clarity, it’s not race, though the treatment of it is revealing and often hilarious. (Like when a huddle of black students browbeats a movie theater cashier over Tyler Perry stereotypes, the film sympathizes with their pent-up frustrations but pokes fun at the misdirection of their discourse.) What Dear White People handles with grace is the interrelated question of identity, and how with all the options and tolerance we cherish today, that question remains daunting. Through wardrobe and hairstyle changes, Sam and Coco take pains to present a truthful version of themselves to the world. Troy struggles to find a balance between appeasing his father and honing his own assertive voice, though that tension is quite clichéd, now isn’t it.
It is Lionel where much of the film’s, and undoubtedly Simien’s, sympathies lie, for he is the most resistant to classification. Like a ronin of questionable skill, Lionel wanders from the dean’s office to Armstrong Parker to the campus newspaper to Pastiche, the humor magazine, victim of Kurt’s homophobic hazing at the latter location and receiving little empathy at the rest. The film forfeits points for veracity by presenting each of these locations as walled-off institutions with strict barriers for entry when in actuality, I don’t know, campus institutions are looser than that, I think? (How else did I get in this paper all those years ago?) Institutions can be as lackadaisical as the people working for them, but a stylized film like this has to cut corners somewhere. So against his stuck-up, careerist or else inhumanly confident peers, Lionel stands out as a relatable and unpredictable work in progress.
Because Simien is black and his movie stars a multi-racial ensemble cast and ends with a race riot (here, in response to a student party featuring blackface), the parlor game of influences will draw us to Spike Lee and, specifically, Do the Right Thing. The comparison is apt, since both movies track multiple characters that encounter prejudice, in its many forms, and alternately ignore, laugh at or lash out against it. But as Sam’s boyfriend guilts her into remembering, “Your favorite director is Bergman but you tell everyone Spike Lee.” Indeed, you can see some Ingmar Bergman in the way two lovers’ faces overlap and are draped in shadow during a post-coital scene, as well as some Wes Anderson in the font and shot symmetry and some Kubrick, circa Barry Lyndon, in the painterly frames that capture ennui at Pastiche headquarters.
There are even a few times when the camera zooms in, slowly and during innocuous moments, like when Troy and his girlfriend (Brittany Curran) scale a set of stairs. That’s a move out of the Robert Altman playbook, another director mentioned here by name, and I’m not sure it’s a wise one. In fact, with Satie, Swan Lake and “Für Elise” on the soundtrack, Simien indulges in the kind of on-the-nose music and visual mixtapes you’d expect from a precocious college student. But for some reason I like that approach, because it’s honest and fitting for the setting. Like the characters in his movie, Simien is still working through his influences to emerge with a voice of his own. That voice right now may be more prolix than clear, but it’s exciting for what it’s trying to say as well as how it’s saying it, and in the world of American independent film, you can ask for little more.
3.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.