by Philip Price
“Dear White People” is calling for an age old request heightened by the arrival of consistently new stereotypes and enlightened by articulate characters who know how to argue and persuade with passion, perspective and pointed examples. "Dear white people with Instagram..." Sam (Tessa Thompson) begins on her college radio show of the same name, "you have an iPhone and you go hiking. We get it." It would be too easy to argue that Sam uses racism to battle racism with snide remarks such as this on her radio show. Hell, one of the black (and I will use black instead of African American in this review because that is what Sam told me to do and I swear, I'm not a racist) characters even accuses her show of being racist to her face, but it's not really. What Sam is doing is throwing around stereotypes that she thinks will quantify all those that do the same to her by trying to break up a predominantly black house on campus into more mixed ethnicity's because the white leaders don't want a bunch of black kids hanging out and cavorting together. Whether there is any truth to this we don't really know because the film never makes it clear the real motivation behind the motivation that gets everyone so riled up. This is more than OK though, because writer/director Justin Simien has filled his film with a semester's worth of short stories with sharp racial politics and dialogue that is executed in a way only such dialogue can be while being as natural as possible and remaining extremely funny. The fact it is intended to be funny is an interesting choice though, because by the end credits it is clear this is a very serious subject in the eyes of Simien and one he intends to let people know is still relevant in our country even if most opposing views will see this as recycling the past to feel relevant. Simien is not blind to where others are coming from though as he slips in the voice of the opposing team in the form of the president of the university's son, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner). Granted, Kurt is a spoiled brat who does and takes what he wants, but even this example is intended to represent those who overcompensate just as Sam does on the other side of things. Leaving what is most impressive about this satire to be the way in which Simien doesn't fight for just one side, but all sides.
As stated, the basis here is Sam's radio show in which she discusses what it's like to be a black face in a white place. This platform becomes of ever-increasing importance when President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen) and Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) decide that the typically all-black Armstrong Hall may need a face lift for the times and that mixing things up may not be a bad idea. Sam sees this as an opportunity to take a stand as it is clear to both she and her friends the administration has ulterior motives in trying to break their tradition. In order to get a better hold on the situation Sam decides to run for President of Armstrong house which is currently in the hands of Dean Fairbanks' son, Troy (Brandon P. Bell). Troy is the big man on campus-type who runs for offices because of what it will do for his reputation rather than having any real interest in the role. He dates the President's (white) daughter Sofia (Brittany Curran) in an effort to position himself as both open to the idea of mixed relationships as well as to add more prestige to his name. It seems the real Troy couldn't be further from this facade though as he rather enjoys living up the stereotypes that plague black people in that he smokes weed in secret and has an affinity for girls such as Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris). Coco is the girl who doesn't see what all the fuss is about, who wants to leave her past behind and join another degree of people at her esteemed university. Coco is chasing the dream of simply being famous with the producer (Malcolm Barrett) of a reality show that is visiting campus. She wants people to know her name. In a move intended to impress this producer she begins to stir up controversy of her own as the opposing black voice to Sam's "Lisa Bonet wannabe" act. In doing so an ill-conceived theme for the annual Halloween party thrown by the campus humor magazine (led by Kurt Fletcher) allows things to spiral out of control. On the outskirts of all of this is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris”) who is neither black enough for the black kids or black enough for the white kids and who should be your surrogate into this world.
There are more than enough factors to discuss when it comes to what makes “Dear White People” such a cutting and intelligent film. Whether it be the calculated musical cues in the soundtrack that switch in style from classical to more current or urban sounds. These cues sometimes better accompany the situation on screen or juxtapose the setting to intentionally pull out even more humor in the situation. Simien also likes to acknowledge the many statues of faces that litter the grounds of the college campus meant to remind students of the rich history they are becoming a part of. That these statue heads are all of one clear descent gives off the point that blacks were neither able to contribute in such a manner and therefore received no recognition or that racism isn't far enough removed that we don't see this possible false history as an issue. Simien, who makes his feature directorial debut here, doesn't seem to necessarily be all about the flourishes that come with the technical aspects of filmmaking but rather is intently zeroed in on the ideas and themes behind his film and figuring out how to reinforce these through his visuals. This is easily gleaned from the very collegiate-influenced style that prefaces each section of the story structure and the shot selection that profiles the major players at the beginning as they essentially give us their mission statements. We are invited into the opposing views of each of the characters so that Simien allows us to understand the different perspectives that can come at a single point and the different angles being played all for the personal gain of the one sitting in front of us. This not only immediately dilutes any inherent arguments people (black or white) going into this may have towards what they think the film will represent or stand against, but it also gives us the through line of the point Simien will try to make throughout and that is the fact everything is about perception. Where is the intolerance problem you might ask? It is in each of us that look at others as inferior based not on race, but for who they want to be but can never feel comfortable being because of our pre-determined judgments.
I walked away from this film feeling not what I expected, but more than anything I was pleased that such a wide-eyed, understanding and well-rounded mind had been given the opportunity to take on this subject matter rather than a cynic who only jotted down racial observations in order to make a few quick jokes. “Dear White People” is indeed a satirical approach to the racial issues America still faces today, but more than this it is about inequality in general as it is able to touch on the prejudices against both women and homosexuals in our society. As much as this is the story of a seeming anarchist who wants to bring about rectitude for what is still present but mostly overlooked it is really a movie about people and the unspoken obstacles we have to overcome if we want to get to where we want. It is all about the politics of creating your desired image, yes, but if anything Simien is trying to remind us we don't have to pick a side to be on and despite the fact it will never likely, actually happen, we should be able to be who we want to be and still be able to do what we want to do without feeling the pressures of having to live up to black, white or any ethnic expectations. Even if we don't play into certain stereotypes there should be an understanding we don't all fit squarely into a pre-determined mold. Again, these are age-old ideas of equality and ones we might have all thought we learned by now, but the way in which Simien presents them with his current and enlightened stereotypes makes the film all the more precise in its execution and boils down the over-thinking mind of the academic to a simple conclusion: no one wins when we all live in stereotypes. I couldn't decide throughout the film if Sam or Lionel was a surrogate for Simien's experiences and inspirations. It would be easy to say he is Lionel as Lionel takes in every situation at hand, but in the end, when Sam has come to somewhat of a conclusion to her journey it is hard to discern whether Simien once had the same fire beneath him and has turned that passion into this feature message as it is clear he now has perspective as well. Either way, he has accomplished something special here as it manages to be knowing and confident without being self-congratulatory. It is a thoughtful piece looking for a place to belong within the society it analyzes.