Dear White People (2014)
Dir: Justin Simien
Are we living in a post-racial (North) America? Or does such a thing even exist? And what does it mean to retain your identity against a sea of otherness? Writer-director Justin Simien tackles these questions and more in the Obama-age satire Dear White People. Trenchant and timely, it skewers race relations and the collegiate experience while holding a mirror up to contemporary social mores. Armed with a sharp ear for dialogue and a wicked sense of humour, Simien’s dense script is overflowing with ideas. Like an eager first year undergrad, Dear White People is happy to argue anything and everything, and despite a few stumbles it mostly comes off like a well-travelled post-grad.
The fictional Winchester University serves as a stand-in for Harvard here, with the college’s cliques and houses introduced in a very Rushmore-like opening sequence. From the start it’s clear that Dear White People is carefully designed and everything carries import, from the food characters eat and the clothes they wear right down to the house insignias. The characters are faced with a multitude of questions. Do you choose chicken and waffles or settle for the sub-par food in the other houses? Do you straighten your hair or keep it natural? What do you say or hold back from in front of your white friends? Questions big and small are viewed through a modern lens with a lack of dogma and a surplus of finesse. Simien turns out to be more early Spike Lee and less rote Tyler Perry (who takes a deserved beating in one of the film’s funniest scenes).
In quick order we meet the main quadrant of characters representing different facets of the modern black experience at a predominantly white school. Preppy and athletic Troy (Brandon P Bell) already has his whole life mapped out for him by his father Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), right down to his relationship with the white daughter of his dad’s archrival. Beautiful and ambitious Coco (Teyonah Parris) puts up with her white classmate’s ignorant questions so long as she’s climbing socially. Introverted and intelligent Lionel (Tyler James Williams) struggles to find a place anywhere on campus, while defiant and insightful media student Sam (Tessa Thompson) takes stock of it all during her confrontational radio address dubbed “Dear White People” (sample line: “Dear White People. The minimum requirement of black friends in order to not seem racist has been raised to two.”).
On top of that there’s each character’s burgeoning relationships to follow, the forced integration among the school houses, and a National Lampoon-like humour magazine called Pastiche that the movie uses to take shots at the “old boys club” that the comedy world can be. All the tension and interweaving plotlines come to a boil at the Fall party put on by the goading members of Pastiche, a “Ghetto”-themed party where white folks dress in blackface (and lest you think that’s outlandish, the movie plays pictures of similar recent parties happening all over American campuses over the end credits). That’s a lot of plot threads to follow and some are given more time than others, leading to some lopsidedness that Dear White People powers through with sheer charisma and balls. There are no sacred cows here and the movie is at its best when it’s pushing buttons and inspiring reactions.
Sam’s story is most fleshed out. As a bi-racial woman she feels caught between worlds, exemplified by her private relationship with a white man while maintaining a more militant stance on her “Dear White People” radio show (she also listens to Taylor Swift). Her story holds the most weight and receives the biggest payoff at the end during a nicely understated speech. There are other nods towards non-conformity that the movie presents as well: Class President and Alpha Male Troy ends up liking sci-fi more than sports, Lionel’s homosexuality is presented as refreshingly matter-of-fact, and Coco’s arc indicts the modern trend of fame and fortune at all costs.
At times there’s so many ideas being thrown at you that it’s like an over-heated conversation with a friend whose brain is running a mile a minute. Such a frenetic pace also means that the less successful elements (like the overly villainous head of Pastiche or the journalism subplot) swiftly move by so that if one plotline isn’t working then it’s quickly on to the next. Overall, it’s a bracing movie with a clear point-of-view, one that heralds a bright new talent in Justin Simien. Thoughtful commentary meets incendiary comedy in Dear White People, which thankfully delivers as entertainment first and knowing rhetoric second.