Alibi V.23 No.43 • Oct 23-29, 2014 

Film Review

Dear White People

Unabashed comedy-drama about black and white college students plays all the race cards

Dear White People

Directed by Justin Simien

Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner

Sam White (Tessa Thompson) would like you to rephrase that last remark.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson) would like you to rephrase that last remark.

By the power vested in me by absolutely no one, I hereby declare 2014 The Year of “The Conversation.” Whether you’re on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., protesting racial profiling or, like Bill O’Reilly, you profess open doubt that “white privilege” even exists, you are still actively involved in “The Conversation.” It’s not that racism and prejudice hasn’t been an active topic in America since ... well, since Christopher Columbus shook hands with a bunch of Arawak tribesmen in the Bahamas. But the debate over how we treat each other and how we come to terms with our own ethnic heritage seems to be reaching a fever pitch. This is, in all likelihood, a good thing. Better a spirited conversation than a bloody brawl. Certainly nothing is solved (or advanced or overcome or whatever it is we’re trying to do here) in the absence of open, honest speech.

So it is with expert timing that freshman writer-director Justin Simien’s comedy-drama Dear White People arrives in theaters. The first-time filmmaker has chosen to tackle no less a subject than race in America for his debut feature. It’s a topic he addresses with a great deal of enthusiasm, a bit of self-deprecating humor and an encouraging glimmer of skill.

The characters in our loose, academic ensemble are united by the fact that they all attend an upscale, Ivy League college. The traditionally (and still primarily) white Winchester University is experiencing its own fast-rising racial tensions. Things come to a head when the campus’ snooty frat boy humor magazine throws a “Negro”-themed Halloween party. While this seems cartoonishly inflammatory, it’s an actual thing that happens at actual colleges in America. The fact that real-life college students need to be told showing up in blackface at a “pimps & hos” party isn’t cool more than justifies this film’s narrative direction.

The fact that real-life college students need to be told showing up in blackface at a “pimps & hos” party isn’t cool more than justifies this film’s narrative direction.

Before we arrive at that fateful party, however, we get to meet a few of the people whose lives are about to be impacted by it. As much a center of the narrative as anyone is Sam White (the charismatic Tessa Thompson from “Veronica Mars”). Sam is a campus rabble-rouser who broadcasts a weekly radio show called “Dear White People,” offering up gentle (and not-so-gentle) satire about race relations. (“Dear White People,” she announces in typical fashion, “the minimum requirement of black friends you need to not be seen as racist has just been raised to two.”) Upset over the school’s recent policy of desegregating residence halls, Sam decides to run for president of the African-American residence hall. Unexpectedly, she wins, forcing her to finally start coming up with solutions to all the problems she’s been complaining about.

As it happens, a reality show looking for cast members and hungry for conflict may be directly or indirectly responsible for Sam’s political victory. This possibility angers wannabe actress Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris, “Mad Men”), who grows increasingly jealous of Sam’s popularity (not to mention her YouTube hits). The diva-esque Coco identifies far more with the likes of the Kardashians than with her own race, but Sam’s ubiquity imbues her with a sudden burst of (ratings-worthy) black pride.

Despite the title, Dear White People isn’t just about calling Anglos to task for their shortcomings. It’s also about asking black people about where they stand on their own self-identity. At its best, the film holds up a mirror to its audience and confronts stereotypes head-on—often with a sharp sense of humor.

Meanwhile, afro-sporting outsider Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams from “Everybody Hates Chris”) drifts around the periphery, trying to figure out how he fits into all this. Several years into his college career, he’s still unable to settle on a major, a residence hall or much of anything else. The editor of the school newspaper sees a spark in his writing, however, and figures Lionel might be just the man to dig up some interesting dirt on Sam White’s sudden rise to power.

Despite the title, Dear White People isn’t just about calling Anglos to task for their shortcomings. It’s also about asking black people about where they stand on their own self-identity. At its best, the film holds up a mirror to its audience and confronts stereotypes head-on—often with a sharp sense of humor. (Anybody who rags on Tyler Perry movies is good in my book.) Simien is eager to show off his educated, pop-culture-savvy wit. At one point overly enlightened Sam has nightmares about being a Cosby kid. (“My sweaters were so big,” she moans.) At another point her (secret) white boyfriend begs for recognition, asking, “Can I at least get credit for a solid Coming to America reference?” There are a wealth of well-spoken, even-toned conversations on display. Watching the film is a bit like hanging out in college and getting into a lot of half-drunk, overly verbose conversations. That’s appropriate, given the milieu—but the film never really works up much energy.

Based on the evidence at hand, Simien could turn out to be an important new voice to watch out for. But he’s clearly still in the early stages of his career here. Dear White People is sprawling in its characters and choppy in its narrative. Simien tries to disguise this by dividing the film into a number of brief segments, each with its own chapter title. The film holds together, but it feels like the work of a noble amateur searching for his voice. Despite the fact that Dear White People bears a structural similarity to Spike Lee’s incendiary ensemble Do the Right Thing—with Lionel as our apolitical observer Mookie and the Halloween party subbing for our overheated summertime riot—Simien is not the young firebrand Lee was. His arguments are a bit too wordy, his emotions a bit too reserved.

Dear White People is smart; it’s professionally made—but it’s more Dead Poets Society than Malcolm X. The humor, the drama, the romance: It’s all a tad too held-in-check. And the “lesson learned” ending is a bit too pat for such a nuanced, contradiction-embracing film. But—with its prickly observations and its willingness to ask hard questions—it’s a great way to continue “The Conversation.”