Dear White People
2014 • 108 minutes • Lionsgate
Dear White People opens in the aftermath of an “African-American-themed” party at Winchester University, a very tony Ivy League school somewhere in the United States. As national news covers the story, several characters stare, shellshocked, directly into the camera. It’s only Tessa Thompson’s Sam White who watches back, a camera glued to her left eye and an appraising look in her right one.
And that’s when I screamed in delight, because there are few things I love more than the fourth wall being coolly, elegant broken to make a point about who is seen and who is being seen. (If you would like to enjoy a pop music version of this, I direct you to Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV Awards.)
The film then rewinds a few weeks to set the scene. A change in housing policy that supposedly randomizes housing assignments is being sharply opposed by Sam, who sees the policy as a way for the administration to break up the historically black house Armstrong/Parker. Sam, a political activist who runs the eponymous “Dear White People” radio show and distributes pamphlets such as Ebony and Ivy, runs against golden boy Troy, son of the school’s dean of students, for leadership of the house to protest the policy. She never expects to win—but she does, troubling both the administration with her actions and the editor of the school’s humor magazine with her refusal to accept “BUT I MAKE FUN OF EVERYBODY!” as permission for racist and harmful behavior. On the periphery of this conflict but slowly moving in are Coco, who finds Sam’s activism and general presentation repulsive, and Lionel, a quiet, sweet queer nerd who can’t seem to find a place to fit in until the school paper asks him to write about Sam.
Director and writer Justin Simiens has said that the film isn’t about racism, but identity—specifically, the disconnect between how people are seen due to their race and who they really are. There’s Lionel, watching a group of black students and watching a group of white gay male students, visualizing himself in different ways to fit into those groups as he sits on the sidelines. There’s Sam, struggling with her father’s illness while she tries to live up to the expectations of the Black Student Union that looks to her for guidance. There’s Troy’s father explaining his high standards for his son as he vows that the world will not see his beloved son as anything less than what he is (or, as it becomes clear, as what he expects his son to be). And there’s Coco, who experiments with presenting herself as more “black” (per a television audience’s standards) when her lifelong appeal to respectability politics gets in the way of her shot of being famous.
It’s fleet, fun, and clever, but never pat. The more subtle visual flourishes, like Lionel’s fantasy and a campus glamour shot that zooms in to reveal the confused distress of the only black face in the photo, are marvelous, but it’s the bigger ones that really show Simiens’ unique lens. Sam and friends bemoan Tyler Perry movies to a usher at a local movie theater, delivered directly in the camera. Lionel takes the tip test in Ebony and Ivy, visualized by he and Sam chatting in a diner. I wish they were more prevalent—I started to miss them as the film wound down and started to focus more on character work—but their effective usage is tribute to Simiens’ eye for efficacy.
There are no simple answers here, as the school discovers in the wake of the party. (Other than, of course, that than Kurt, the editor of the humor magazine, needs to be punched in the face.) Even Sam, so clearly the voice of the film despite its complex ensemble, isn’t as perfect as initially presented. But it’s a testament to Tessa Thompson’s charisma and acting chops that Sam is so ferociously engaging even at her most radical. She was one of the elements that attracted me to the film to the first place, back when it was just a video plea to fund the Indiegogo campaign. I am beyond delighted that Thompson is starting to figure on the mainstream cinematic stage after several years on television, with her recent roles in Selma and Creed.
I watched this film on Hulu Plus.