Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dear White People

Directed by Justin Simien.
2014. Rated R, 108 minutes.
Tessa Thompson
Tyler James Williams
Dennis Haysbert
Brandon P. Bell
Teyonah Parris
Kyle Gallner
Justin Dobies
Brittany Curran
Marque Richardson
Malcolm Barrett
Peter Syversten

We meet Sam (Thompson) as she is doing her college radio show, "Dear White People." As we learn is typical of the show, she talks mostly about the dos and don'ts for white people during their interactions with people of color. She's also a known campus revolutionary, of sorts. She's revered by most of the African-American student population of her school, Winchester University, yet angered and feared by the white population of both students and the administration. She happens to be bi-racial, but clearly identifies more with the black part of her heritage. Sam's main rival is ex-boyfriend Troy (Bell). He is much more moderate and, thus, more palatable option to the whites for the leadership positions for which they compete. He also happens to be the son of school's dean (Haysbert). Coco (Parris) is another major player. She is dark-skinned, but seems to want nothing to do with black men. Her main focus is trying to land a reality TV gig based on her periodic podcasts. Caught in the crossfire is Lionel (Williams), a black journalism student trying to secure his spot on the roster of the biggest student newspaper on campus. He so happens to be a total misfit, ridiculed by everyone on both sides. A dissertation on race relations in post-Obama America ensues.

From the very beginning, Dear White People wears its emotions on its sleeve and goes right for the jugular. The brilliance of it is that it takes both blacks and whites to task. While it points plenty of fingers at white people, it points a healthy number right at blacks, as well. Neither side is exempt from its scornful eye. With whites, it more deals with how to treat people of color as true equals and with respect. With blacks, it speaks more to not going out your way to portray yourself as something you are not, whether that be more friendly to the masses or ultra-militant. We also deal with homophobia and how blatantly reality TV panders to all of our lowest common denominator. To keep itself from becoming an overbearing brow-beating, all of this is handled with its tongue firmly in-cheek. The movie is rarely, if ever, laugh out loud funny, but it does give us enough chuckles maintain its levity.

Sam being bi-racial makes her the perfect protagonist for this movie. She's naturally pulled by both sides of her ancestry. This movie is nothing, if not an examination of people being pulled this way and that by the forces surrounding them. This is physically manifested by the three young men closest to her. Ex-boyfriend Troy is black, but so clearly looking to accepted across the board. She sees him as fake and purposely rebels against behaving in a manner that will give her mass appeal. Reggie is her second fiddle in all things revolutionary. He is not at all concerned with what whites think of him and completely embodies the spirit of protest. It's his fierce conviction that she aspires to. However, even though he fancies her she doesn't feel the same way. That's because she's carrying on a secret relationship with the white Gabe (Dobies). He goes along with her wishes to keep things under wraps, but is growing increasingly impatient with this setup. This is particularly important. It's not just her relationship with him, it's also her relationship with half of her own family and, by extension, herself that's kept neatly tucked away. Over the course of the film this causes much inner turmoil that mounts and takes its toll on our heroine. It is during this part of the film where star Tessa Thompson shines most. We can connect to the emotions she's going through. Likewise, the movie itself is at its best portraying this.

The movie falls short in two areas. The easiest to pick out is that Lionel's story is paid lip service, but not quite what it could be. We see that he's not liked by anyone because of he's not only black, he's also socially awkward, and gay. He seems to grow more comfortable in his own skin which is nice, but he also still seems to be doing things to somehow make himself fit in which seems to work against the overriding theme of the film. He eventually rebels against the overt racism of the finale, yet is also complicit with the more subtle racism that leads him to covering these events because it will benefit him. So even as he is maintaining his integrity in one area, he's selling out in another. In a broader sense, the movie never really gets as deep into homophobia in the black community as it could. It notes that it is there, but quickly moves past it by having everyone see Lionel as heroic after he does something late in the movie.

The second troublesome spot for Dear White People is a bit harder to pick out because it's something that's not actually in the movie. The movie almost completely ignores the fact there are races other than black and white. In the twenty-first century racism has rightfully come to encompass more than just the dynamics between these two races. This film's tunnel vision effectively blocks out that possibility except for a stray line of dialogue. One white character, the president of the university, dismissive of the claims of the black students says that "Racism is over in America. The only people who are thinking about it are, I dunno, Mexicans probably." It's meant to show how flippant white attitudes can be to issues not affecting them. That it's never mentioned again suggests this. It shows that the filmmakers are not completely ignorant of the world outside of the problems facing this set of characters, but unwilling to address it even though how others are viewed and treated is part of the national conversation both on and off campus. There is one person of Asian descent, but she's more a means to an end rather than an actual character.

Despite those shortcomings, this is still an entertaining and poignant movie. The things it does well, it does very well. It shines a revealing light on college life in America which, in many ways, is still segregated even as the schools themselves have been integrated for decades. It also deals with how prejudices within the black race causes interior division. In both cases, it's clearly inspired by Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and School Daze. It even pays homage to those movies at several points along the way. Like Spike, also, it likes to skewer the current state of what passes for black entertainment with Tyler Perry being the biggest target. Through it all, Dear White People is a whip-smart satire that uses its college campus setting as a microcosm of the larger discussions on race. We can clearly hear talking points that we've heard on countless news programs debated here. When we get to the big event that serves as our finale, it at first feels over the top. There's no way something like this would ever happen, right? While it serves the story okay, at that point, it seems to be too much. Then we're shown actual pictures of just that very thing happening on real college campuses and we're left with mouths agape at how relevant this is. There's no doubt, the film can come off as preachy and heavy. Thankfully, it's amusing enough to make it a weight worth lifting.


  1. Really liked this movie, a lot more than I expected. Loved the movie theater scene. Even though the message was far from settle, I appreciated the passion and creativity. Wound up as my #15 film of last year.

    1. I'm very happy to hear this. There was certainly lots of passion and creativity that went into this. Haven't ranked my 2014 films just yet, but I imagine this will find its way onto the list. I'm on my way to check out yours. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I really want to see this. Shame that it's not laugh out loud funny. The promotional stuff for it on youtube was hilarious. They were fashioned after those NBC "The More You Know" PSAs. Genius!

    Good review, man.

    1. It's an excellent movie without being a barrel of laughs. There are some, to be sure, just don't go in expecting 22 Jump Street. Hope you get to check it out soon.

  3. Your second flaw is one of many reasons I love Do the Right Thing. Superb review as always

    1. Do the Right Thing is my favorite movie of all time so you get no argument from me.

    2. I salute your great taste good sir

  4. Love your review and analysis of this movie, and it sounds like something I want to see, think about, and discuss. I grew up in the 70s (with deep family roots in Mississippi no less), and the changes I've seen in my lifetime have been tremendous and wonderfully encouraging. But being focused on that, I think I am inexcusably naive about the issues that still exist. Does that make sense?

    By the way, I still need to see Do the Right Thing. The only Spike Lee films I've seen are 25th Hour and Malcolm X, which are both wonderful.

    1. You totally make sense. I grew up during the 70s, too. When you've seen so much progress it can be hard to notice the areas where not as much has been made until something drastic happens. So I understand. Of course, I'm recommending Do The Right Thing. I think it's amazing. Thanks for the praise.