Dear White People is an indie comedy by first-time writer-director Justin Simien. It is a great, little movie. Although I wouldn’t say that it caught me by surprise—I saw a really well-cut trailer for it ahead of time, in addition to hearing about it from Dave White and Alonso Duralde, both of whom know Simien personally—my anticipation was certainly warranted.
The film is set in an Ivy League university that might as well be called Not-Harvard. It is a predominantly white college, like most schools at that level, and is about a young black woman named Sam (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring filmmaker who has a radio show called “Dear White People,” in which she addresses the students across campus about the various ways that white people fail to coexist with people of color. Sam discusses a wide range of ways that white people fail in race relations, from constantly touching black people’s hair to having a single black friend to avoid seeming racist.
Thompson has been in several terrible films, including When a Stranger Calls and Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, yet she is very well cast here. She displays a combination of anger and wit that is exacerbated by her silver tongue, which prevents her from fitting in with the posh, high-society of the Ivy League. I was reminded of David Fincher’s The Social Network while watching this film, because both of them nail the desire for exclusivity that college breeds in young people. At first, you wonder why a maverick personality like Sam would end up here, but it becomes apparent that she is brilliant and belongs among the intellectual elite. All this is conveyed by Thompson, who is believable in delivering Sam as a complex personality.
The other main character is Lionel, who is played by Tyler James Williams, the star of the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. Lionel is a directionless sophomore, formerly a philosophy major, now undeclared. He has a massive afro that every person he meets asks about; he is a loner who watches Star Trek. We’ve met this kid on campus, and chances are that we were this kid. Lionel gets a new lease on his college life when he finds an outlet for his love of writing in the form of the campus newspaper. He writes a piece about Sam and the mounting tension she causes with her radio show on campus.
Lionel is also gay, which further ostracizes him from the other students. He is a character whose sexuality is incidental—he, nor do any of the other characters, do not conform to any stereotypes of race or sexual orientation. Simien seems to be intensely aware of the way that mainstream media breaks down and oversimplifies non-white, non-heterosexual characters, and bucks that trend at every turn. Simien is also gay, and therefore has a vested interest in keeping characters of all stripes completely human.
There is a large supporting cast, including Dennis Haysbert as the dean of students. His character’s son, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), is a campus golden boy, on his way to a successful career in law, but his weed-smoking habit and lack of conviction put him at odds with a path that seems dictated by his father. One of my favorite characters is Coco (Teyonah Parris), who tries to gain fame by posting vlogs in which she rants about being trapped in the Ivy League. She finds competition in Sam when a reality TV producer comes to campus with plans for a new show that could use a willful black woman as a star.
Dear White People is often very funny, but it has a major point to make about the way that white people deal with black culture. The white people in this film view racism is nonexistent and appropriate black culture with almost a sense of defiance. This comes through with the preppy white fraternity, whose members constantly listen to rap music, and spout the N-word casually in conversation due to their comfort with the hip-hop lyrics. At first, it seems as though Simien wants to play this for laughs, but as the white characters continue to commit prejudices both subtle and blatant against people of color, you can feel the characters’ pain. The film deftly balances wit with gravitas.
Simien has directed three shorts before this film, and it feels as though he has had this one bubbling inside him for a while. It is well crafted, with artistry evident in all aspects of its production, from the dynamic editing to the Anderson-esque compositions, without the alienating quality of Anderson’s arch universe. I have a feeling that Simien is going places after this film. With any luck, Simien will stay true to his indie roots, so to speak, and never be beholden to the whims of a major studio. How can Simien include pointed diatribes against Tyler Perry if he’s the guy cutting his checks?