“Racism is over in America. The only people who are thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” So says the (white) president of the fictional Winchester University in the new trailer for Dear White People, writer-director Justin Simien’s debut film. It’s the kind of flagrantly off-base sentiment that inspired the movie, which evolved from a concept trailer based on Simien’s experiences at a predominantly white university to a Twitter account and eventually to a feature-length film that got raves at Sundance.
Tessa Thompson plays Sam, a radical activist described by another character as what would happen if “Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey had some sort of pissed-off baby.” Sam uses her campus radio show to broadcast decrees that begin with the opener “Dear white people,” drawing attention to the racist behaviors her white peers engage in, oblivious to the offense they’re causing. In the midst of several racially-driven campus controversies, Thompson’s campaign stirs the pot, celebrated by some and renounced by others as an example of the very thing she’s trying to dismantle.
At Sundance the movie won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Simien, for his part, views the film not as a call to action, but as fodder for the kind of discussions we need to be having. “I hope it leads you to have conversations with your black friends, your white friends, all kinds of people about what you thought and how it made you feel,” he told an audience. The talented cast includes Teyonah Parris (Mad Men), Taylor Williams (Everybody Hates Chris), and Dennis Haysburt (24). Dear White People hits theaters on Oct. 17.