Dear White People is a film I wish didn’t need to exist, but once you take into account the true-life examples of white folks throwing blackface or black culture parties without fully understanding the racist implications involved along with the rather excellent point made by the film’s strongest character (Tess Thompson) in its final minutes, you realize just how badly its point of view is needed. However, the pigheaded antics of some frat boys and the indifference of a student body who said nothing aren’t the only reasons for the film to exist; Dear White People bursts at the seams with examples of how every racial and ethnic segment of our society has a real problem with recognizing how deep the problems go. From reality television to Tyler Perry, both sides of the racial gap are doing their part to make things worse and exploit a culture for profit, and writer/director Justin Simien does a stupendous job of pointing out the hypocrisy flowing in either direction.
The Dean (Dennis Haysbert) and President (Peter Syvertsen) of Winchester University both like to think all is well on their Ivy League campus, but just below the surface racial tensions are beginning to boil. Just about everyone on the campus is in denial about something, whether it’s aspiring journalist Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who can’t get past his own narrow stereotypes which prevent him from creating an identity for himself, social justice advocate Samantha (Tessa Thompson) who has built herself up as a crusader despite pieces of herself that identify with the system she rails against, Coco Connors (Teyonah Parris) who’s torn between her desire to establish her identity as anything other than just another black student and the fortune promised by playing into the stereotype to possibly secure the lead in a new reality TV show to be shot on campus (by a TV producer played by Malcolm Barrett). Finally, there’s the son of the dean (Brandon P. Bell) who wants to make his father happy by pursuing student government, but finds his plans thrown off by an election and the distraction of writing for Pastiche, the satire newspaper run by the President’s bigoted son (Kyle Gallner)
Everywhere you look at Winchester University everyone is busy trying to be the person people think they are without paying any attention to who they want to be. The jumble of conflicting agendas comes to a head at the Pastiche’s annual party which has a rather unfortunate theme, making it just how clear the racial divide on the campus truly is.
On one hand, the identity crises faced by each of the characters in Dear White People is entirely normal and can be seen playing out on virtually every college campus across America. College is a time of transition and the discovery of who people really want to be after having spent high school worrying about who they needed to be to be popular, and that portrayal of college is one Dear White People hits perfectly. On the other hand, that alone doesn’t make Dear White People unique, and instead it’s how the film builds up its different pieces, predictable and obvious or not, to create a perfect storm of racial and personal tensions that allows each character to have a moment (or two) of realization and gives the community of Winchester University as a whole a rather big wake up call.
Tessa Thompson’s final scene with Dennis Haysbert, wherein a small but obvious twist is revealed, contains the fundamental message that Dear White People can’t drive home enough: the most serious problem isn’t that people do incredibly racist things like hosting race-themed parties, it’s that everyone just goes along with it under the banner of free speech. If racism was truly dead, as one of many tone deaf characters in the film and far too many real-life politicians claim, then a party like the one throne in Dear White People’s third act could never happen. It would be canceled the second people received the invitations and cried out in protest.
That doesn’t happen though, and so films like Dear White People are not only entirely on target, they’re also unfortunately necessary.
"Dear White People" is on sale February 3, 2015 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama. Written and directed by Justin Simien. Starring Kyle Gallner, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Tyler James Williams, Brandon P Bell.