DEAR WHITE PEOPLE Movie Review – Bold, Audacious Campus Satire
Filmmaker Spike Lee’s considerable shadow hangs over writer-director Justin Simien’s feature-length debut, Dear White People, a multi-character, multi-story satire of conflict-ridden campus life at a predominantly white Ivy League school, Winchester University, during the Obama Age (a/k/a, post-racial society). The presence of two of Spike Lee’s key ‘80s works, Do the Right Thing and School Daze, are evident in practically every frame, every character, and every line of dialogue. That Simien still managed to write and direct a significant, relevant film like Dear White People speaks volumes for both his talent as a filmmaker and the need, no less urgent now than it was twenty-five years ago, to have a meaningful, bias- and preconception-free conversation about race, racism, class, and identity in America. Not surprisingly, Simien won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent this past January.
Dear White People centers on four African-American characters, each character representing one possible aspect of African-American identity, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a militant firebrand/social activist/radio DJ, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the opportunistic, fortunate son of the Dean of Student Affairs (Dennis Haysbert), Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris), a Southside Chicago native with bourgeois pretensions and reality-show celebrity status, and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay loner and outsider and journalist wannabe. Individually and collectively, they’re not meant to be all-inclusive, of course, just typical of middle-class/upper middle-class students at a predominantly white university. Each one is driven by the extremely American desire to remake themselves, to remake and reshape their identities to their “truer” selves, subjectively, if not objectively.
It’s the struggle for identity that lies at the core of Dear White People and not only for the four central characters. Even the white characters, as privileged – and some might suggest, as caricatured as they are at times – are searching for and/or attempting to find their identities, however poorly advised and borderline racist (consciously or not) their decisions might be. If there’s one, overarching theme in Dear White People, it’s not about whose version or vision of “blackness” is right or wrong objectively or subjectively, but about identity and its inherent fluidity. Identity is both fluid and at the risk of courting controversy, a public and/or private performance. It’s not by coincidence that Sam, the fiery, self-assured intellectual, hesitates during crucial moments. That self-assurance hides more than a few doubts she has about herself. We are, in part, what others think of us, what we think of ourselves, and how the two intersect. Sometimes that leads to cognitive dissonance; sometimes it doesn’t.
As a first feature film, it’s not surprising that Dear White People contains more than a few rough edges. Some of the performances have an improvised, unfocused feel while some of the characters, already shoehorned into a film overflowing with potentially compelling characters, get marginalized, an irony that Simien would surely acknowledge and understand. The focus on broad farce and overt racism, culminating in a campus party where white students wear blackface at a party, precipitating a clash local, sensationalistic media immediately describes as a “race war” (it’s far from it), has the side effect of sidestepping the more subtle forms of racism Dear White People intermittently addresses (what social and cultural critics call “micro-aggressions”). That does little, however, to diminish the contribution Dear White People makes to a much-needed national conversation.