Dear White People
Directed by Justin Simien
Four black students attend an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over an “African-American” themed party thrown by white students. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film explores racial identity in 'post-racial' America while weaving a story about forging one's unique path in the world.
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★★★★ review by Simone on Letterboxd
As a high-achieving black high school student who could legitimately mark the "Multi-racial" box on the question about race/ethnicity, I had my pick of prestigious colleges. I didn't choose the school highest on the US News and Report rankings. Instead, I picked the school where my version of blackness would be most readily accepted. At the Ivy League school I visited, I was the only black person I saw outside of the airport during my two day stay. At another prestigious school, my social circles were already predetermined by my hometown and my race. I was tired of being the only black kid in the class. I was also tired of having my identity questioned and challenged by people who considered themselves more black than me. In Dear White People, four black students at a prestigious predominantly white institution struggle to be authentic in a campus culture poisoned by stereotypes, unrealistic expectations, and self-segregation. I could relate. They may seem like simplistic characters at first, but the strongest aspect of the film is deconstructing their facades and portraying their inner conflicts with grace and empathy. It's a film with a lot to say, but it's not nearly as antagonistic as its title suggests.
Much of the film revolves around debates and discussion about race relations, culture, media representations, and politics. Sam White, played by the endlessly watchable and talented Tessa Thompson, is a media studies major with her own campus radio show called Dear White People. She runs for president of her house after the school has decided to randomize housing, which will break up their mostly black house. Troy is the son of one of the university's deans. He has a white girlfriend, is headed for a career in law, and is very popular. However, he feels the need to hide his weed smoking and his dream to write jokes. Coco, born Colandrea, is probably the most deluded of the four main characters. She talks down to people of her own race, seemingly in denial that she has more in common with them than the white people she's desperately trying to fit in with. She spends the majority of her time courting a reality TV producer. Lionel is a shy, awkward, gay writer who hasn't found his people at the university yet. It's easy to take advantage of him because he's so hungry for acceptance. They are all grappling with their own separate identity issues, but their paths cross in surprising ways. They don't come to a consensus about racial politics, but they all readily condemn the racist party the humor magazine on campus threw on Halloween.
Simien's ambition seems to have no limits, and I find that heartening. He seems to be emulating the big, gutsy ensemble satires that have never been the norm, but were much more frequent in the 70's and 90's. Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet were probably huge influences of his. He had so much to say that a single film barely contained it all. It seems like his stories and characters would've been better suited to a half hour dramedy on HBO, which I actually hope to see someday. The critical success of this small indie film could make that happen.
For my peers hungry for more nuanced representation of millennial black men and women, I'm sure this film will excite and touch them. However, I was thrown off by the directorial choices made throughout. It's overtly parceled into neat sections, the staging is distractingly obtuse, and there's no visual coherence to the story. A lot of the humor falls flat, and other times it completely contradicts the goal of an overarching satirical tone. The major showdown at the blackface party feels anticlimactic and completely separate from the rest of the film. The real emotional climax for me was Sam's second film project, which was a much more honest project than her first. Her arc was my favorite part of the film by far.
I never fully settled into the visual aesthetic, which frequently took me out of the story and made me pay attention to Simien more than his carefully constructed characters. Otherwise, it's a stylish, smart, and necessary film. I'm rooting for it to do well. I think we need ambitious storytelling like this from black perspectives. They don’t all have to be perfect, but if they have as much heart and brains as Dear White People and are unafraid to speak the truth to an audience yearning to see themselves on screen, one day films like this will just be one of many to choose from. It's so topical and relevant to contemporary cultural debates that it will live on as a conversation starter for a long time.
★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
FINALLY, a movie made for *me.*
★★★★ review by Jake Cole on Letterboxd
Justin Simien says he originally took the film's climax out of his early drafts because he found it too farfetched before multiple blackface parties started erupting on campuses. Similarly, so much of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, particularly its focus on middle- and upper-class white kids hiding behind satire to say whatever they want, seems even more relevant in the wake of the most vitriolic, revealing reaction to #CancelColbert. But setting aside the film's relevance, it's an exceptionally written movie (I can't think of a better college comedy in the last, oh God...), with a great cast and a number of sly visual gags (one of the best being a soft-focus shot in which a girl blurred in the background can nonetheless be clearly seen listening in and throwing shade on a conversation between principal characters). I also love the subtle joke that all of the white characters are so bland and look-alike, while all the POC are distinctive in looks and behavior, not to mention they're all beautiful. Compared to the broader gags of the film, this is never remarked upon, but it speaks volumes to Simien's understanding that diversity is not simply a matter of adding more color to a cast but letting POC actually be characters, not a bland, homogenous front.
★★★½ review by Esteban Gonzalez on Letterboxd
“Might I also remind you that I read your entire fifteen-page unsolicited treatise on why the Gremlins is actually about suburban white fear of black culture.”
There is a moment in Justin Simien’s feature debut, Dear White People, where the President of a fictional Ivy League college tells one of his students that racism is over in America. Simian makes it clear through this witty and satirical film that it’s far from true. Now before you stop reading and discard this film as yet another preachy and formulaic film focusing on racism, I want to say that this film is completely unique and original. There are different view points presented in Dear White People and very sharp dialogues, but Simien never takes sides on the issue and lets the audience make their own conclusions. There are four distinct characters in the film and they each have their own personal opinions about racism and view it differently. The way they interact with each other and discuss their differing opinions is what gives this film a life of its own and a unique feeling to it. My only complaint is that there is a lot of different things going on and everything seems rushed (the script was originally over 200 pages long).
Dear White People is a stylish film with clever satire and some fun and memorable characters. The story is fictional, but the plot takes several elements from a real life party that took place at the University of California, San Diego in 2010 where one African American ran the event, but it was attended by predominantly white students. In Dear White People the controversy centers on a black-face party that takes place in an Ivy League college (Winchester University) which is thrown by white students. The film then jumps back five weeks to explore the events that led to the party and that is where we are introduced to Samantha (Tessa Thompson), a student hosting a radio show on campus titled “Dear White People.” She surprisingly becomes president of a mostly black residential hall, beating the former president who’s the Student Dean’s son, Troy (Brand Bell). She is against the new university policy of diversification of the residential halls and wants to keep the house exclusive for black students considering they are a minority on campus. The other two main characters we are introduced to are Coco (Teyonah Parris) who believes she has more in common with the white students and is obsessed with becoming famous, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams) who is sort of an outcast writer who hasn’t found his place in the school. They are four clearly distinct characters who are trying to pave their way in college. The film focuses on the interactions they have with each other and their different views towards racism.
Tessa Thompson is the heart and soul of this film as the rebellious student who is always delivering clever lines in her radio show. Tyler James Williams delivers some of the funnier moments while Brand Bell has the more dramatic scenes as he shares some intense scenes with his father played by Dennis Haysbert. Teyonah Parris does a fine job balancing the drama and humor. What all these characters seem to have in common despite their different views is that they are hiding who they really are. They are afraid to simply be who they are because they feel they have a reputation or code to live by. Somewhere in their struggle to figure out how to live and fit into their groups they have lost their own personal identity. This is one of those films that can be studied in class and generate a lot of different conversations about the issues of race because it never takes a clear side.
★★★★ review by 👽 Zara 👽 on Letterboxd
i would die for tessa thompson
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