Here is a guest review from my friend David O. sharing his thoughts on the satire, Dear White People.-one of the lesser viewed movies of 2014 that is on the list of Films-you-missed-but-shouldn’t-have-in-2014.
- Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner and more.
- Directed by: Justin Simien
- Synopsis: “A social satire that follows the stories of four black students at an Ivy League college where controversy breaks out over a popular but offensive black-face party thrown by white students. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film explores racial identity in acutely-not-post-racial America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world.”
- Rating: Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.
- Must-Watch Trailer:
Each generation touts theirs as a paradigm shift in racial culture in America and perhaps each claim has some merit. “Dear White People”, a satire directed by newcomer Justin Simien tries to define multiple aspects of the black campus experience at a fictitious Ivy League school named Winchester University. The movie has heaps to say about this experience for the four main characters as they navigate race and racism on campus. This film gets to the core of identity. It dissects how we portray ourselves to others and on occasion how we passively let others define us. Each of the characters seem acutely aware of who they really are versus what others think of them and yet unsure how to balance the two. There’s an element of hypocrisy in each of us and the brilliance of Simiens’ vision is the way he deconstructs the archetypes in the film through their hypocrisies.
Let’s meet the four main players–
Samantha ‘Sam’ White (Tessa Thompson) operates a provocative campus radio show and is the reluctant face of the black movement on the predominantly white campus. “Dear White People, the amount of Black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count.” She pulls no punches about the conditions at Winchester as she sees them. Sam finds herself elected President of the all black residential hall Parker-Armstrong, much to the dismay of the previous President Troy, who has political aspirations of his own beyond Winchester. The residents of Parker-Armstrong unite behind Sam, and view this as an opportunity for her to spearhead opposition to attempts by the administration to dissolve the hall in the name of diversification. Sam commands the respect of her constituents and while she is comfortable criticizing the way things are from behind the microphone, she bristles at the idea of being the face of a larger black movement. By secretly hooking up with the white TA from film class she reveals cracks in her militancy. Is she Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr, something in between, or none of the above? Her persona threatens to swallow her whole as racial tensions mount on campus when a prestigious white campus house plans a Halloween party with the theme “Liberate Your Inner Negro”. Parker-Armstrong demands that she protest the party and the people behind it. She feels the weight of the moment and finds support in surprising places, but can she rise to the occasion?
Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) has aspirations for a certain station in life and struggles with his and his families’ expectations. As a popular athlete and son of Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), he has rarely dealt with adversity. Losing the election to Sam strikes a blow to his ego. He comes to grips with the realization that his brand of politics may work on a grand scale, but the racial awakening the residents of Parker-Armstrong are experiencing requires a sharper sword. In political terms, he alienates his base by treating them as a stepping-stone in his personal pathway. Can he represent them fully while dating the white daughter of the University President (and his fathers’ boss) who is also the sister of the head of the white campus house, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner)? He seeks refuge in his association with Kurt and the other white campus house students spearheading the Halloween party. Troy tries to endear himself to them by authoring the official invitation to the “Liberate Your Inner Negro” party. He deals with the mounting pressure to be the perfect future political leader at all costs like any other college student would; by sneaking away to smoke weed in the bathroom behind his girlfriends back.
Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris) represents a new student seeking to shake her past and make her own mark at Winchester. Hailing from inner city Chicago she hopes to shed perceptions of her lower-class upbringing by using her more palatable-to-whites nickname and seizes opportunity in the budding campus controversy. She and Troy form a bond while spending time partying with the white folks in hopes that the end justifies their means. When she discovers a television producer is hot to tell Sam’s black-fish-in-a-white-pond story on a reality show she plans to co-opt the idea for her self. As an underclassman she doesn’t have the cache Sam does on campus, but she has a plan to upgrade her stature. She willingly enters the lion’s den by aligning with the white students and setting herself up as hostess of the controversial Halloween party… all for the cameras of course.
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) faces struggles of his own as a wallflower looking for a garden to grow in. He is part nerd, park geek (yes, they’re different), part genius, and all original. Rocking a sweet afro that white folks can’t keep their hands off of, he flinches at the attention. Lionel represents the closest thing to a stand-in for the audience. Some scenes find him reacting to the circus the way the audience reacts and in others he controls action on-screen. On a campus where he feels like an outsider because of his race and sexuality, he transforms his weaknesses into strengths. He parlays his perceived blackness into a writing position for the school newspaper that want an “insider” to write about the increasing racial tensions. The editor of the paper seeks to manipulate him through their shared sexuality while Lionel proves he is the smartest one in the room. Writing about the show from the cheap seats does not suit Lionel and he seeks to be a lead actor in this play as the Halloween party looms.
Each of the main characters in “Dear White People” remains engaged in a personal battle of expectations. Will they fit a mold society has predetermined for them or will they stand up and say, “I will define me”? As the climax of the movie approaches, we find Sam retreating to her room haunted with the idea of leading the black students in an effort to stop the controversial party that openly mocks stereotypes of their culture. Troy finds himself torn between his desires to keep his white connections and blowing up their plans. Coco is determined to see the party come to fruition as long as she can capitalize on the spectacle while Lionel is gripped with the concept of no longer remaining passive and becoming the centerpiece of anything.
The Halloween party depicted onscreen represents one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the movie. White folks in blackface fill the screen carrying pimp goblets sporting NBA jerseys, baggy clothes, and other various forms of ass-hattery (yes, that’s a technical term). Kurt revels in the proceedings. Troy finally comes to his senses and races to find his father to stop the horrific display. Coco lets her desire for fame blind her as she parades around the party that openly mocks her filming the whole thing. Lionel takes the reigns and organizes the minorities on campus to crash the party and put a stop to the madness. Sam snaps out of her funk, embraces her bi-racial background (and her love for Taylor Swift-gasp!) with the assistance of her lover/TA/wannabe boyfriend and joins in on the efforts. The uninvited succeed in crashing the party in a spectacular manner by slipping in and absorbing what they are witnessing. Lionel takes matters in his own hands and announces his displeasure on the sound system before angrily toppling the speaker stacks. Chaos ensues as the administration descends upon the party. Things begin to get physical between Kurt and Lionel and the party devolves into the proverbial scene of the racial crime. (This also doubles as the most awkward on-screen kiss of the movie).
The coda of the film tries to neatly tie up the movie, but doesn’t quite put a bow on the proceedings. For those who think that the Halloween party, or ones like it, are fictitious plot-devices of Hollywood productions I encourage you to stick around for the credits as if it were a Marvel movie. If you haven’t been paying attention, cross-racial stereotype parties have been happening across the country for years now and their inclusion helps ground the film before it.
Simien is a director with tons to say and in some cases it feels like he is determined to fire off all of his bullets in this one movie rather than offer a tighter offensive. He uses title cards to begin scenes and lets plot strands string together some of the disjointed scenes. He offers characters that wear masks to define themselves to certain characters and use their actions towards others. Their motivations mimic the motivations in each of us. The film provokes conversation and deserves a wide audience of all races. It makes you laugh, eye roll, squirm, and correctly or incorrectly feel comfort in some of your current understandings about all races. I believe this is exactly the reaction Simien is chasing.
While titled “Dear White People”, the film could very easily be titled “Dear ______ People” and be equally engaging. If you feel like you have issues of race all figured out, you see the title and may find yourself less inclined to seek out this film and you would be worse off for it. The title is meant to be provocative and while “Dear White People” is not a perfect film, it is perfectly engaging and I cannot wait to see what Simien has to say next.
(Remember, to read this review and over 300 more, check out THE ARCHIVE of movies reviewed anytime. Know before you go…or rent…or buy!)
Thanks for reading! Happy Watching!
–T, The Focused Filmographer
***Special thanks to David for watching the film and sharing his thoughts with this review.