Dear White People
Directed by: Justin Simien
Written by: Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris and Brandon P. Bell
In one of the many scenes of humiliation in Justin Simien’s Dear White People, the newly-elected head of the unofficial black student dorm tips over the white university president’s son’s plate in a dining hall and demands that he get out. She says it’s because he doesn’t live there, and he isn’t used to not getting his way. There’s obviously very intense racial tensions in the scene, but the ways in which the different groups within the school’s black community react to it make it, and the movie, more complex.
That dorm head, Sam (Tessa Thompson), is also the host of a campus radio show that gives the movie its title. She uses “Dear White People” to speak a series of agitated open letters to the white students at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University and the black students currently in power. Although Simien’s movie climaxes at a racist “hip hop” themed party where a bunch of white students dress in blackface, before that it’s more interested in the divides within the black community on Winchester’s campus.
Sam uses her show to help leverage her position as the head of her dorm building, usurping Troy, a dean’s son, in the process. Her main goal is to restore a recently discarded rule that allowed students to pick their own dorm rooms. Her argument is that randomizing housing on campus isolates, and ultimately weakens, the black students on campus.
The community is already split, though. In addition to Sam and Troy (Brandon P. Bell), Simen focuses on two other black students to get that point across. One is Lionel (Tyler James WIlliams), a gay student who, because of randomized housing, is forced to live with the president’s son and his other homophobic, racist friends. There’s also Colandrea (Teyonah Paris), an aspiring reality TV show star who doesn’t want her blackness to get in the way of her success. She goes by Coco at school and apologizes for having to “get real black for a second” on a video blog about her hair on YouTube.
Much of the conflict in Dear White People is a reaction to these students’ self-expression. Coco’s YouTube videos are a reaction to Sam’s radio show, which criticizes whiteness just as much as it criticizes Troy and other black students’ coziness with that power structure. Lionel is the only character in the movie who is an almost total outsider, and he writes about these conflicts within the school’s black community for the school paper.
As you can see, there is a lot packed into Dear White People; so much so, in fact, that the movie often feels formally confused and overly didactic. There are some sharp exchanges, notably Sam’s scathing send-up of Birth of a Nation in her filmmaking class, but almost all of the conflicts Simien introduces seem to dissipate during the racist party scene. White students sport black face, wave around plastic guns and eat watermelon, and the black students show up to confront them.
This is obviously an enraging scene, especially given that it still occurs semi-frequently at colleges around the country. However, it smooths over the rest of problems too conveniently, and gives us simple characters that are easy to despise instead of exploring the more complicated issues introduced earlier in the script. This is especially true of Lionel’s arc, which at first is the most interesting and then the most cheaply resolved. He’s a quiet, bullied gay student who is used by white newspaper editors to “infiltrate” the black community and report on the housing issue.
White people pick through his hair on a whim, the university president’s son pulls out his dick to make him uncomfortable when he shows signs of confidence, and when he’s placed in the same room as Troy he’s greeted with a slammed door and apprehensive stare. By the end, he’s the loudest dissenter at the blackface party, slamming over speakers and planting a kiss on the same man who used to torment him. The script is too sporadic to get him or any of the other characters to that end point coherently, though.