“Dear White People” is a witty college comedy ready to talk openly about its rather sensitive social subject which, to be frank with you, I am not that familiar with. While there are a number of scenes I had to watch again for fully understanding the humor and insights inside them (it took some time for me to digest the meaning of ‘oofta’, for instance), I was frequently amused by its sharp sense of humor, and I was engaged enough to care about its young, smart African American characters who still have more to learn about what they want to be – or who they really are.
They are all the students of Winchester University, a prestigious institution filled with the regal aura you can sense from any Ivy League school. In the campus predominantly Caucasian, our young characters certainly belong to a minority group, and one of the residence halls in the campus, Armstrong-Parker House, has been mainly for African American students like them, though that trend has recently become a bit flexible thanks to the Randomization of Housing Act initiated by President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen).
While Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), the current head of Armstrong-Parker House, does not see any problem with that, Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), a student of mixed race who is very outspoken about her opinions and thoughts, thinks differently. She has been doing a campus radio show named “Dear White People”, and she pulls no punch during her radio show as throwing acerbic commentaries on Caucasian people’s many incorrect or misguided attitudes toward her and her fellow African Americans. When one caller asks how she would feel if someone started “Dear Black People”, Sam replies with a snappy answer which contains some biting truth about the American medias, and you will see that you are watching a smart, intelligent film which does not hesitate from anything in its open talks on race and racism.
When Sam unexpectedly defeats Troy, who is incidentally her ex-boyfriend, in another election for the head of their house, she and her radio show get more attention, and that becomes a major problem for not only Troy but also Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), a sassy girl who has been trying to get the attention of a visiting reality TV show producer. While she is not so pleased when the producer, who is an African American guy, wrongly labels her as a girl from ‘the hood’, Coco is willing to go along with whatever she is expected to look like by others, and she begins to take a more direct step to get more attention like Sam, though it must be said that they are quite different in their respective approaches.
In case of Troy, losing the election makes him think more about where his life is being directed to. He also has to deal with his stern father, who is none other than the Dean of his university. While not very happy about his son’s defeat in the election, Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert, who looks both smarmy and authoritative with his thick, rigid voice) sees a possible trouble from Sam, who promises to the students of Armstrong-Parker House that she will “bring black back to Winchester”. As a man who knows well how the system works, Fairbanks firmly believes that he and his son must play along with it, and Sam is surely someone to be taken care of in his viewpoint – especially when the university desperately needs big financial supports from its rich backers who will not ignore any racial trouble in the campus.
And there is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, who was wonderful in TV sitcom series “Everybody Hates Chris”), a shy, quiet lad who is my favorite character in the film. While he instantly draws our attention with his impressively bushy hairdo, Lionel is a social wallflower who does not get along with others much, and being an African American gay male makes him more insecure and uncertain about himself because that makes him a sort of double minority member. At one point, he imagines himself being in one group and then the other group, but then he soon comes back to reality as reminded again that he is still a loner drifted around the campus. None the less, he eventually finds his starting place through a well-regarded university newspaper which nobody seems to read, and he even comes across the possibility of romantic relationship in that process.
While his debut work is reminiscent of other similar college movies such as John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” (1995), the first-time director/screenplay writer Justin Simien has his own story to tell, and he effectively presents it with confidence as a talented filmmaker. Many key scenes in his film show thoughtful scene compositions and camera angles to be appreciated; watching one conversation scene between Coco and the reality TV show producer, I noticed its interesting way of handling indirect two-shot, and I was also amused later by one particular shot which somehow took me back to one of the memorable shots in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980).
The movie flows freely along with its various characters while observing the shifting dynamics between them, and that is not so far from many works by Robert Altman (it slyly recognizes that aspect at one point, by the way). The dialogues are clever and funny in precise delivery (my favorite line: “You’re more Banksy than Barack.”), and Kathryn Bostic’s music, which is adapted from many familiar classical music pieces, cheerfully enhances the comic moments in the film.
Simien’s screenplay gradually reveals the main characters’ complex sides as it is apparent that nothing is simple in their attempts to define themselves in terms of race and other matters. While raising race issues together with the members of Black Student Union, Sam also becomes attracted to a nice Caucasian student named Gabe (Justin Dobies), and she finds herself worrying about how that will make her look in front of her colleagues. It also turns out that Troy has his own private things he would rather keep to himself, and we get a funny awkward moment when Lionel happens to witness one of Troy’s different sides.
As announced in the prologue part, everything finally comes together when a very misguided fraternity party is held by Kurt (Kyle Gallner) and his Caucasian staff members of Pastiches, a popular satirical magazine in the campus. Kurt, who is also the son of President Hutchinson, initially conceived this event as a humorous response to Sam’s radio show, but this doofus and his dim cronies really have no idea on how wrong his plan can be, let alone how unfunny he actually is in his attempts to be funny and daring. When you make jokes about someone with power and privilege, that can be pretty funny, but it is not so funny at all when you make jokes about someone below you.
Not so surprisingly, Kurt’s party becomes quite offensive with the guests who are disturbingly oblivious to how racist they look in their costumes and make-ups. You may think this part looks too absurd, but then the photos shown during the end credits of the movie will show you how often such despicable events like that really happened around American universities during recent years. That is more than enough for us to be reminded that racism is still a problem to talk and discuss about in the American society, and the movie makes a good argument for that around its ending.
“Dear White People” received the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival in last year, and it also received Best First Screenplay prize at the Independent Spirit Awards early in this year. Although I observed it from the distance as a foreign audience outside US and I might fail to notice some of its specific details, but it works as an enjoyable satire with recognizable human behaviors while supported by the lively ensemble performance from its cast, and I was personally tickled at times by its numerous movie references. After all, not many comedy movies can toy with both “Coming to America” (1988) and “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), you know.