Review: Dear White People

DWPSam Biting satirical racial films are rare these days in the so called post-racial-America that was spearheaded by the Obama presidency. Justin Simien’s debut film that he wrote, produced, and directed is a testament that America’s issues with race are far from over, but that’s not as much of the focus as one might glean from the title of the film alone. Dear White People is far more of a journey of self discovery in the modern age. Four Black students discovering who they truly are in midst of racial animosity, confusion, and eventual maturity. Dear White People focuses on four Black kids at an Ivy League college. The four have very different trajectories that they set out on and where they land is not as obvious as it might appear. Playing within the lines of what it means to be Black in America during a time of seemingly the highest amount of racial understanding can sometimes be the hardest time; lines get crossed by the unknowing, and by the uncaring. Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), often addressed as Sam, is the bi-racial young woman who runs a local radio show on campus entitled 'Dear White People.' Its obviously controversial due to Sam’s affinity to call out White people’s micro and macro aggressions. She makes statements such as “Dear White, dating a black person to piss of your parents is a form of racism.” Obviously, Sam is easily one of the most militant of the Black students on campus. She refuses to compromise her blackness in any way.

The second, and likely most relatable character is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams). A journalism student who is tasked to do a character piece on Sam, but suffers from a level of being an outsider that makes him familiar to the audience in one way or another. Lionel just can’t seem to fit in anywhere. He bounces from house to house trying to find a place to land, literally and figuratively. He is afflicted with the notion of being not black enough for the Black kids, and too Black for the white kids; sounds like how Barack Obama was describe by many during the 2008 campaign. Sadly this is a very common Black experience for college students in the age of information. Where cultures are more widely colliding, seemingly in a good way, how do we stay true to our own culture? A question that Dear White People proposes, but doesn’t need to answer because it let’s the audience figure it out for themselves. Lionel’s journey is that of self discovery in this cultural middle ground.

Next is Colandrea Conners, often referred to as CoCo, (Teyonah Parris) an extremely bright young woman who is the very definition of craven. She works as a lens into two distressing aspects of Black culture, but she is explored incredibly well. CoCo while majoring in Economics at this Ivy League college has aspirations of much more; sadly that is reality television stardom. She meets with a producer about it and learns that controversy is the way to truly make it. She sets out on that path to extremely damaging consequences. Her desire for fame is a very common thing, not unlike wanting sports/music stardom over education. The other aspect of CoCo is her self-hatred. She makes every attempt to distance herself and reject her Blackness. She covers her hair, apologizes for her skin tone, and rejects men of her own race out of hand. She sees herself as progressive but in reality she is likely the most damaged. Her arc is that of discovery from the point of learning to love yourself and continue on the path she began when she enrolled in college.

Last but certainly not least is Troy (Brandon P. Bell) who is the son of the Dean of Students, played by Dennis Haysbert. Troy is the most popular, good looking, and charming man on campus. He is dating the President of the college’s daughter and the world is his oyster if he wants it. However, Troy lives between two worlds much like Lionel. Struggling between being the passable Black guy that puts White people at ease at the behest of his father, and being his own man. Living in the middle is torturous for Troy and it works to make him a generally miserable person to those around him. His father wants him to fulfill a dream that was never his, but can Troy walk away from it and go his own way? While trying to be his own man, Troy becomes the ultimate code switcher and lap dog for the son of the President of the college. There is something truly sad about Troy’s character and likely eerily familiar to many Black Americans. How do you break the expectations of the previous generation while respecting what they have accomplished?

Dear White People has a provocative title that will lend to ridiculous comments from people who will never see it. However, in the end the film should probably be called Dear Black People. Its plays as an excellent view of what four Black kids face in their college years. These experiences are not uncommon and can even happen to Whites as well. However, the unique Black American experience is what makes the four personal journeys that much more fascinating. The characters run parallel to one another, but in the end cross paths in a way that shouldn’t be spoiled here. Many complain that Black American cinema is not prominent or sophisticated enough, but Justin Simien’s Dear White People not only disproves this but goes one step farther. He manages to make a film that is inclusive to people who would likely pass it by due to its title alone. When I saw the film the theater was nearly 50/50 Black and White, that bodes well for these future generations.

The dialogue was on par with what you might expect in a film like this. Young college kids doing their best speechifying impressions, and it works so well. Tessa Thompson truly stands out a the provocateur of the film, while Tyler James Williams's Lionel is the true break out. It's nice to see young black actors not fulfilling stereotypes to further or in some cases jump start their careers. At times Dear White People might be harsh and in your face, but in the end its a movie that EVERYONE should see regardless of race or ethnicity.

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