Race is something we should be able to talk about honestly in this country, but of course it is so charged as a topic that many just avoid it. Up and coming young writer-director Justin Simien cleverly solves this problem by using satire instead of heavy-handed drama in his first feature, provocatively titled, Dear White People.
Tessa Thompson plays Samantha White, an African-American media studies major at a fictional Ivy League-type school called Westchester University. She does a show on the college radio station called “Dear White People,” in which she takes humorous jabs at prevailing racial attitudes on campus. One example is, “Dear white people, stop touching my hair all the time. Do I look like a petting zoo?” She runs for head of the black residence hall against the popular Troy Fairbanks, played by Brandon P. Bell, and unexpectedly wins. Troy’s father is the dean of students, played by the film’s one big name, Dennis Haysbert—Dad wants him to be a shining example, but Troy secretly smokes dope and wants to write jokes for the college humor magaazine. Then there’s Coco, played by Teyonah Paris, who wants to fit in with the white students and get a gig on a reality show; and finally Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams, a shy, gay loner with a big Afro who makes a bid to become a reporter for the college paper by doing a piece on the “Dear White People” controversy.
One central event, which we note in a flash forward at the beginning of the film, ties the plot strands together: an ill-conceived Halloween theme party at a predominately white residence hall where students are invited to come dressed up as African Americans. In case you think this would never happen, during the credits Simien shows you actual news items about campuses where these types of things did happen.
The themes and concerns of Dear White People are more subtle than this summary makes it sound. It’s more about the tension between identity politics and being true to oneself than it is about overt racial tensions. These are college students, after all, and so nobody’s sure about who they really are or what they really want, and the awkwardness of this reality keeps sneaking up on the characters. The film is a gentle kind of satire, a humor more of the smiling and chuckling to oneself kind than laughing out loud, although the film has a few of those laughs as well. Simien likes to depict the variety of ways that the African American students interact with each other, and the barriers of class and sex within black society, not just between whites and blacks. His writing is witty and often quite inventive, although not everything he tries works (for instance, the adult characters are all kind of ciphers). The film’s style sometimes has a certain first-timer feeling to it. But Tessa Thompson really anchors the picture as Sam, who is not at all the rigid ideologue that she might seem. In fact, one of the movie’s most touching and convincing themes is how often love and connection occur across all the supposed racial barriers. There’s a sadness and an earned wisdom to this aspect, and it makes Dear White People go beyond being just a smart social comedy into a work of uncommon understanding and insight into what divides and unites us.