Tackling a topic as complex, difficult, and at times downright uncomfortable as race relations in the United States is never easy. Dear White People, the feature film debut from writer/director Justin Simien, stares it right in the face with a combination of biting satire, understated anger, and a whole lot of thoughtfulness. It’s tempting to make judgments based on the title alone, but this is the type of character and current events study that serves a purpose for everyone.
Taking place at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school, the plot contains four interweaving story threads. There’s Sam (Thompson), an outspoken broadcast major that hosts a radio show. Her signature segment, entitled Dear White People, pokes fun at the generalizations and stereotypes white people make about blacks. Sam’s former boyfriend, Troy (Bell), is the son of the school’s Dean (Dennis Haysbert). He’s ambitious, but often accused of selling out in trying to fit in his father’s circle of mostly white administrative colleagues. Coco (Parris) is from the rough streets of Chicago and determined to put her past behind her by becoming a reality TV star. Finally, Lionel (Williams) is a journalism student that can’t seem to fit in, despite his book smarts and drive to write meaningful articles for the school paper. Things come to a head at the aforementioned paper’s annual Halloween party, where the theme is rap culture and taste goes out the window.
Simien’s script is the real star here. Though it battles slight pacing issues and a few too many subplots, it’s filled with edgy, satirical observations about being black in a mostly white world. Simien toes the lines of anger, comedy, and solemnity effortlessly. Every character has a trait that comes as a surprise, and they’re all written as intelligent, driven students. The film doesn’t offer many solutions to the issues it takes on, but it does effectively take clear aim at people that immediately judge those that are even remotely different. When the climactic Halloween party arrives (based upon real college parties over the past several years), it feels dirty, sad, and infuriating. That such casual racism still happens, and is permitted in some circles, is the true driving force of the narrative.
Dear White People manages to open a dialogue about a complicated issue without ever alienating the viewer. That, coupled with superb performances from the cast (led by Thompson), makes Dear White People one of the most perceptive and socially relevant films of the year.
Length: 100 Minutes
Rating: R for language, sexual content and drug use.
Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014 (Limited)
Directed by: Justin Simien
Written by: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell