Dear White People: It’s rare for a film’s title to announce so plainly both its targeted audience and modus operandi, and in such few words. Then again, it’s not often that a debut feature that isn’t a documentary has such an unmistakable point of view, as writer-director Justin Simien demonstrates in his satirical romp about exploding racial tensions on a fictional, elite college campus. “Racism is over in America,” proclaims the white president (Peter Syvertsen) of Winchester College to Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert). “The only people who are thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” The reaction shot of the bemused dean—who, we learn, graduated from their mutual alma mater summa cum laude while the president barely passed—says it all without saying a word.
That’s an example of Dear White People at its best—dialogue plucked perfectly from the comments section below any article or YouTube video about race, slyly presented in all its absurdity, little comment necessary. Unfortunately, Simien’s many smart, relevant thoughts on race are more often wrapped up in an impassioned, didactic bow that rarely feels fresh—or, more damagingly, funny.
If you pay attention to indie film, you know about Dear White People: The film’s incredible social media campaign has included an enticing viral trailer as well as popular video tie-ins, some of which include schooling white people on proper etiquette when interacting with blacks. Dear White People has a direct and pointed message for well-meaning whites about the myth of a post-racial society. But Dear White People is also meant to appeal to folks who resemble the director, now 31, who began working on the script eight years ago while a student at a small private California college: black millennials who have had the fortune of living at a time where there are more opportunities for them than ever before in history, but must also learn to navigate a tricky and uncomfortable world that has only changed so much. A world where their mere presence, however minimal, on the campuses of PWIs (“predominantly white institutions”) is frequently challenged by unfounded laments on affirmative action, and being “twice as good” as white peers is still a mantra handed down by elders.* Dear White People actively encourages those millennials in the audience to nod their heads in agreement or laugh heartily out of sadness as bigotry, microaggression, and flat-out racism are exposed and contested unabashedly.
I should fit squarely into this audience—like the movie’s revolutionary-in-training Sam White (Tessa Thompson) and social misfit Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), I struggled at times to define myself as a black individual within the confines of a PWI campus. I appreciated the movie’s point of view, but I yearned for it to strike a consistent tone. Is it a satire, in the vein of Hollywood Shuffle? Is it a college comedy with an overtly educational bent, à la any number of episodes of A Different World? Or is it a radical tragicomedy reminiscent of Spike Lee? Simien’s tone shifts awkwardly throughout Dear White People, and the movie often lacks the wit, charm, and focus of any of those cultural touchstones. (It does not, to its credit, lack their bite.)
The opening montage sets the tone beautifully: We enter the world of the campus via a sea of mostly white faces as they linger in groups of slow-motion tableaux; the occasional black face stands uncomfortably in the background. Sam, host of the controversial “Dear White People” campus radio show, undercuts these visions of blissful near-homogeneity with her biting commandments for the school’s majority, one of which includes raising the unspoken “quota” for black friends needed to not seem racist from one to two. (“Your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count,” she smirks.)
The montage displays Simien’s potential as a visually and emotionally arresting filmmaker, and evokes the brilliantly-written “Black Acting School” vignette in Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. But unlike that 1987 film, which addressed multiple topics about black representation in pop culture through one man’s story, Dear White People attempts to explore every possible angle via four (!) main characters. Sam, an outspoken opponent of the diversification of the school’s historically black residence hall resembles a more calculating Buggin’ Out. Lionel is a scrawny gay black kid and aspiring journalist who’s never fit in with the white or black kids. Dean Fairbanks’ son Troy (Brandon P. Bell), who aspires to be on the school’s all-white humor magazine, and Coco (Teyonah Parris), who is ashamed to admit she grew up “in the hood” on the south side of Chicago, round out the main cast. While all these storylines interconnect somewhat believably, several subplots, like Coco’s quest to be on reality TV, go nowhere. In fact, the script probably would have felt tighter if either Troy or Coco were cut out entirely; in many ways, they serve the same purpose—to highlight the tensions that arise when some people actively shun their peers and buy into the myth that a post-racial society exists.
Dear White People is the kind of movie where frank conversations about race play out all the time (cool!) but they’re delivered primarily via impassioned speeches in nearly every scene (ugh). Take, for instance, when Sam gets into a heated showdown with the white kids, led by the president’s tool of a son Kurt (Kyle Gallner), over their presence in the Armstrong Parker dining room—the debate throws out references to Obama, affirmative action, the Republican party, and lynch mobs, among other well-worn buzzwords. It’s a lot of people talking at each other stiltedly, not with each other. In another scene, Sam, accused by the dean of hosting a “racist” radio show, rat-a-tats back the familiar academic stance that repressed minorities can’t be racist because “racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.” Cool lecture, excellent dissertation topic, but not an interesting dramatic moment.
It’s not to say that these points shouldn’t be raised—of course they should—it’s just that the film and its characters feel weighted down by these speeches, not propelled forward. Even the film’s climax, a protest of an “unleash your inner Negro” Halloween party thrown by Kurt and his friends on campus, is interrupted so that Coco can lay it all out: White people spend money on tanning and Jay Z tickets, because “they wanna be like us.”
The scene is clearly inspired by Do the Right Thing’s burning of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, albeit without all of that film’s moral ambiguity. (Another sequence, of Sam and her friends complaining about Hollywood’s limited depictions of black life, feels like an update of the Larry Bird jersey guy scene.) But that climactic sequence in Do the Right Thing bursts forth from the carefully arranged, percolating interactions of that day and feels earned, nay, fated to occur. Simien’s setup for the party is more clumsily handled—out of some heretofore unspoken solidarity, for instance, every non-white student group on campus joins the black students in ambushing the party. (Prior to this, race is discussed and experienced strictly through the lens of black and white.)
Simien’s created an opportunity for himself rarely granted to a person of color in Hollywood: the chance to criticize and expose racism almost entirely on his own terms. (The film gained steam via a successful Indiegogo campaign). Watching Dear White People, I got the sense that he’s putting it all out there now, because who knows when the next chance will come? I applaud him for his honesty; Dear White People will certainly succeed in provoking an honest dialogue about race in the here and now. But Lee was able to do the same with Do the Right Thing without sacrificing consistent storytelling in the process. He melded didacticism (Radio Raheem’s “Love and Hate” speech) with theatricality (the repeating mantra of “Wake Up!”) and naturalistic, loose, funny conversations among characters. I nodded my head in agreement many times while watching Dear White People, but I can’t say I was ever truly compelled by the story it tells.
Correction, Oct. 17, 2014: This article originally misstated the meaning of a “PWI” college campus. (Return.)