“Mass media from Fox News to reality TV on VH-1 makes it clear what white people think of us,” says Sam (Tessa Thompson), when asked on the radio show she hosts at Winchester University how she would feel if someone started ‘Dear Black People’.
Dear White People is writer/director Justin Simien’s debut feature film, a biting satirical comedy that deals with race issues in contemporary America. Attracting controversy upon its release in America last year, the attention-grabbing title alone drew criticism, suggesting that it would project offensive stereotypes about white people (as an example of things spiralling out of control, one only needs to read the comments section on YouTube when the teaser trailer was launched). With its pop culture references and comments on racial prejudice, its release in the UK comes with added relevance following recent events in the US.
Set at the fictional Ivy League Winchester University, the film portrays four students’ experiences of what it feels like to be a black face in a white place. Sam White is studying Media Arts and is struggling in her class (her short silent film, Rebirth of a Nation, does not go down well when it is screened). Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is a writer for the university paper who ends up writing an article on black culture at Winchester University. Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris) is a vlogger looking for fame as a reality TV star. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is the head of Armstrong-Parker House (Winchester University’s predominantly black dorm) and also the son of Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert).
Each of the main characters has a clear arc, on one end trying to appease their friends, family and peers, yet also trying to find their own identity. In particular, Coco wears blue contact lenses (and at one point a blonde wig) in an effort to try to ‘fit in’. Lionel is moved around between different dorms at the university, which speaks volumes about how he cannot find a place where he belongs. While the action takes place in a fictional setting, the themes explored and the conflicts faced by the characters are relatable, whether Lionel is describing his hair as “a black hole for white peoples fingers,” or Troy is attempting to be his own person rather than the one his father expects him to be.
The film’s message of identity comes to the fore when Lionel imagines a stylised version of himself meeting and conversing with a crowd of white people, then black people. Later this is hammered home when he is asked, “What’s harder? Being black enough for the black kids or black enough for the white ones?” Lionel responds with, “being neither,” the point being that it’s hard enough just being yourself, especially when people already have ideas about you based on cultural preconceptions.
Tessa Thompson is a standout, fierce and intimidating as Sam. In describing her, one student proclaims it’s like “Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed off baby.” Tyler James Williams is brilliant and almost unrecognisable as Lionel, a character who initially just wants to blend into the background and get on with his work, only to finally face up to what’s going on around him. Also notable is Kyle Gallner as Kurt Fletcher, a student in charge of the university’s comedy magazine Pastiche, who is introduced in a rather charged conversation that occurs the first time he meets Sam.
With Dear White People running a little over 100 minutes, its wit and subsequent laughs fade away during the second half and we start to see a serious film that becomes more of a soapbox for the characters. During some scenes, it feels less like the characters are having conversations than giving speeches (Coco launches into one the moment Sam points her video camera at her). What they say is significant, but feels almost forced, as if Simien is simply looking for somewhere to slot in all the material he’s accumulated.
The film builds up to a final third inspired by university campus themed parties, where (mostly white) students decide it’s a good idea to go along dressed up in a way that promotes negative racial stereotypes (in the film, a news report notes that party invites asked students to “liberate their inner Negro”). Without getting too spoilerific, Simien reaches an interesting conclusion: finding out who’s responsible for organising such a party is one thing, but the fact that a bunch of people naively went along with it and didn’t question how their actions would come across to a minority demonstrates the extent of the problem.
Underneath the humorous exterior, Dear White People is a daring and thought-provoking film that raises issues and questions that will hopefully provoke healthy discussion once the credits start rolling (unless you’re too worried about being labelled a racist to talk about race at all). At one point, the film voices a complaint about the kinds of black characters we see in Hollywood movies: they either feature black people in fat suits, “black people dying in the past or black people dying in the present.” The irony here is that Dear White People doesn’t feature any of those things, yet despite it having secured a UK cinema release, few of us will be able to see it on the big screen.
Dear White People opens in the UK on 10 July.