In 2014, Justin Simien’s critically acclaimed Sundance hit, Dear White People, received accolades as he took home the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for his captivating film debut where he explores themes of race, privilege, and identity in a way that hadn’t been done before. Dear White People made some waves with its controversial title, White audiences were adverse to the film and its Netflix counterpart. But the title is misleading. It is not about white people or protesting racism and racial transgressions, it’s about the black identity. This insightful film has no crisis of identity, it knows what it is, even if others do not.
Dear White People is a thought-provoking social satire that follows four black students as they navigate their identities and what it means to be black at a primarily white institution as racial unrest unfolds across the prestigious campus. At the film’s heart it’s about identity vs. self, the persona you project vs. the person you truly are. What I loved about the film is that everyone is performing in their own way in an attempt to navigate their own blackness and the preconceived notions of what blackness is supposed to be.
At the helm of it all is Sam White, played with poise and a sharp-tongue to match by Tessa Thompson. Militant Motor-mouth, Sam causes a major stir among her peers and administration at Winchester University, A fictional prestigious primarily white institution, with her provocative radio show, ‘Dear White People’. This, apart from her self-published book titled ‘Ebony and Ivory’. She makes keen generalized observations and criticizes white peers, which make up a large number of her active listeners, on the microaggressions, hypocrisies, Cultural Appropriations, and blind spots that they subject black people to in their day-to-day lives on campus. So, when Sam wins the election as Head-of-Household for Armstrong/Parker house, the only dormitory on campus that has primarily all black and brown students, tensions escalate to a new level.
This character-driven college dramedy, would be nothing without its captivating cast. Tessa Thompson shines as Sam, the outspoken and know-it-all biracial activist who is forced to become the face of black Issues on campus, while fighting her own hypocrisy. Tyler James Williams plays gay aspiring journalist Lionel, who struggles to connect with both black and white students, finally gets a chance of making his presence felt at the Winchester when he gets recruited to write an expose on Sam and the experience of black students on campus. Brandon Bell is Clean-cut complacent perfectionist Troy, struggles to meet his father’s, the Dean of the Winchester (Dennis Haysbert), expectations while he struggles to become active in making real change on campus. Teyonah Parris steals the show as Coco Conners, who has no problem assimilating into Winchester’s white culture, as she aspires for reality-show fame. The film takes stereotypes such as the Outspoken Rebel, The Golden Boy, The White Liberal, and the Awkward Outcast, the Vapid popular girl, and the film surprises us by turning these tropes on its head.
Teyonah Parris’ Coco Conners is no exception. The tension of her underlying battle with her blackness is so interesting and heartbreaking to watch. Especially the sad reality of self-hatred and internalized prejudice within the black community. Her struggle with her identity, as someone who is forced to fit in the mythos of white standards of beauty, was one universally felt but something not quite discussed. The theme of identity and cohabitation in white spaces while black is an on-going theme within the film, with Sam exploring her identity as a biracial woman, and how she fits within black spaces. Most times it ends with her overcompensating and contradicting her own provocative opinions.
The black experience is intersectional and multi-faceted. The historical monotony of Blackness’ portrayal in media is confronted and combated by Dear White People’s portrayal of blackness in all of its varying physical, cultural, and ideological states of being. But unfortunately the film was only able to skim the surface.
Simien’s directorial debut is a wonderful introduction to his fresh voice, unmatchable wit, and eclectic style. His style is artistic and razor sharp, much like its snappy dialogue. It showboats its sarcasm, irony, and identity through its visual and commanding style. Some moments were oddly placed but it doesn’t affect the pacing of the film. The film is well-paced for the amount of storylines and character arcs it struggles to balance.
The film had interesting and illuminating relationship dynamics that I wish were thoroughly explored. There is an overwhelming amount of storylines and characters, each character has a lot of nuance and depth but there is a lack of room within the film to explore these internal discourses deeper. The film doesn’t really balance all of it well. Which is why the TV series of the Same name, now on its fourth season, works better in its favor. The film lacks thorough character development for everyone, except for Lionel, who is able to finally advocate for himself and others when Sam can’t. There are moments where the film struggles with its intersecting identities as much as its main characters did.
Dear White People exists in a heightened reality. In most cases, black people don’t say the provocative things that sam loudly proclaims, we aren’t given the space too. Dear White People complicates conversations about political correctness, free speech, and allows its audience to join and continue the conversation even after the credits roll.
Verdict 4 out of 5
Dear White People is cheeky, bold, and charmingly irreverent, but it exists within the confines of a limited runtime. The film didn’t have time to combat every topic. Sam was the main focus and we were only allowed a glimpse of what the other characters had to offer. In the end, Simien makes do with a narrow timeframe and successfully brings issues of black authenticity, tokenism, cultural appropriation and at the heart of it all: Identity to life in a narrative that isn’t so black and white. Despite, it’s minor fumbles, Dear White People is an exceptional debut that came at the perfect moment. With the announcement of Simien’s next Horror-Satire Bad Hair, I’m excited to see what he has to say next.