Taken from the name of its main character’s inflammatory radio show, Dear White People is a campus comedy that finds both black and white students coming to terms not only with how others view them but how they view themselves. While the movie and its marketing do have a prickly, sardonic exterior, the core of the film is an intelligent, even-handed look at young people choosing to conform or not conform to others’ expectations of them. First time director Justin Simien explores these layers of identity through a myriad of well-thought-out characters that don’t just serve as mouthpieces for the film’s message.
The lead character Sam, played by Tessa Thompson, is the resident rabble-rouser of the prestigious Winchester University, whose radio show lobs loaded racial one-liners such as “Dear white people: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” The show proves offensive to both white and black characters, drawing the ire of the school president’s son Kurt, played by Kyle Gallner, and the dean of Winchester, played by Dennis Haysbert. With the backing of the campus’ Black Student Union, Sam is able to claim control over the all black Armstrong/Parker house from the dean’s son Troy, played by Brandon P. Bell.
As an act of rebellion against Sam’s reign, Kurt and his humor magazine group Patische choose to celebrate their annual Halloween party by throwing an intentionally offensive “black” themed party, complete with blackface makeup and “thugged-out” apparel (the invitation states that XXL is the smallest permissible t-shirt size.) While this may feel like an overreach on Simien’s part, the film’s end credits document real life headlines of fraternities caught hosting eerily similar events. The party serves as the film’s climax, which has noticeable parallels to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
We’re obviously dealing with heavy material here but the level of honesty and humor that Dear White People brings to the conversation of race is refreshing. The acting, by a generally unknown cast, is generally stellar across the board. The screenplay is often witty and relevant, only faltering when going after easy targets like Kanye West and the Big Momma’s House series. Even without the race content, the film would work as a Robert Altman (who is name checked by one of the movie’s characters) influenced look at modern college life.
Certainly this is an ambitious film, especially for a debut, and Simien does spread himself too thin over multiple story lines that come together through one contrivance or another. I would have enjoyed the scope being narrower overall, focusing more intensely on 3-4 characters as opposed to broadly on 7-8 characters. Although tonally consistent, the film’s visual style tries to cover too much ground without ever truly establishing itself in the first place. However, the contemplative musical score does help to fill in those gaps and bring Dear White People together as a worthwhile piece of sharp social satire.