In the months leading up to the release of Justin Simien's debut feature Dear White People, I noticed a curious trend. Nearly every time someone would post an article about the film (a link to a trailer, a review, an interview, etc.), the same comment (or some variation on it) would inevitably pop up in the article's comments section:
“Hey, what if somebody made a movie called Dear Black People? I bet you wouldn't be too happy about that. This movie is racist!”
Simien anticipates this response, and responds to it right off the bat. One of the film's early scenes introduces us to Sam White (Tessa Thompson, Selma), a black student at the prestigious Winchester University. She hosts a radio show called Dear White People, and uses it as a platform to express her frustrations with white culture in general and the predominantly white Winchester campus in particular. It doesn't take long for her show to generate a response from an exasperated white student.
Caller: “So, Sam, how would you feel if someone started a Dear Black People?”
Sam: “No need. Mass media from Fox News to reality TV on VH1 makes it perfectly clear what white people think of us.”
Americans live in a world with a predominantly white point point of view. To be sure, progress has been made in various areas of pop culture over the past few decades, but whiteness remains the default cultural norm. For many white people, whiteness equals normality, and anything that falls outside the realm of normality represents some form of confrontational political statement. If the cast of the next Batman movie was predominantly black, our society would likely regard it as, "The Black Batman Movie.” If the cast of the next Batman movie was predominantly white... well, it would simply be a Batman movie. In a way, the vast majority of modern pop culture feels like a Dear Black People (or a Dear Hispanic People, or a Dear Indian People, or... well, you get the idea): “Here's a portrait of the way we see the world and your place in it.”
The film opens with the revelation that a riot has broken out on Winchester's campus in response to a racist party thrown by a group of white students. Then, the film jumps back in time a few weeks and slowly details the assorted factors that led to the event. The party is so flamboyantly racist that it almost seems over-the-top, but then Simien tosses up a few photos from similarly-themed parties held on real-life college campuses in recent years and you're reminded that he isn't exaggerating a bit. Indeed, I'm writing this review mere days after a much-publicized incident at the University of Oklahoma, where white frat bros started chanting about lynching black people. Dear White People doesn't offer a simple, clean-cut explanation for why these things happen, because the problem runs deeper than, “a lot of white people are racist” (though that's certainly an essential ingredient of it). There's a great deal of wisdom and complexity in the way Simien explores the host of racial, cultural, social and academic tensions that make a modern college campus a veritable powder keg. What we're seeing are the fissions that occur when institutions that have spent centuries nurturing white privilege are forced to adjust their identity (or at least pretend to).
Simien places the spotlight on a large handful of characters of various ethnicities, but four black students form the film's center. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, Everybody Hates Chris) is a shy, gay journalism major who feels out of place in nearly any group of people. Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris, Mad Men) is a gifted video blogger eager to secure a starring role on a reality television show. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell, Mission: Impossible III) is a charismatic class president who also happens to be the son of Winchester's Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert, 24). Then there's the aforementioned Sam White, the film's strongest and most defiant voice. It's clear early on that these four characters are symbols of varying perspectives, so it's a pleasant surprise when we later realize that they're also real human beings. They're permitted to be messy, contradictory and complicated; to do things that don't fit comfortably within the persona they've established for themselves. There's a gap between who we are and how we want other people to see us, and that reality is particularly pronounced within the confines of academia.
Dear White People isn't a shrill polemic barking cultural orders at white people. It's a satirically-charged but fundamentally empathetic attempt to examine life (or at least a certain corner of it) from a predominantly black perspective, which is something moviegoers aren't treated to often enough. For this particular white person, it was a much-appreciated opportunity to view the world through someone else's eyes – to see deep-rooted cultural bias from the perspective of those actually affected by it.
Simien has already been compared to Spike Lee (because of course he has), but it's clear that he's found far more inspiration in the films of Wes Anderson (in his slightly fussy formalism and structural precision), Woody Allen (in his fondness for scenes of intellectually capable characters engaging in witty, intelligent, didactic dialogue) and even Ingmar Bergman (in his desire to explore the nuances of unanswerable questions). There's even a hint of Stanley Kubrick in his sardonic employment of classical music on the soundtrack. Dear White People occasionally strains under the weight of Simien's ambition (like many rookie filmmakers, he seems eager to demonstrate every single thing he's capable of within a single feature), but the slightly disjointed parts form a thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying whole. Dear white people: set aside your kneejerk reactions and listen. Dear people: here's an impressive directorial debut well worth your time.
Dear White People
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 2014