Content Note: This review and the embedded links contain spoilers, and are NSFW.
Given its punchy title, one may expect Dear White People to be a frenzy of righteous anger, and coruscating dissent. But while the film is a tractate on contemporary American racism, it’s also a coming of age tale.
The story centres around four black students in the fictional Winchester University, with Sam White (Tessa Thompson) as the centrepiece. It’s she who hosts the titular radio show, where her monologues attempt to pierce the fallacy of a post-racial America, entitling them “Dear White People”.
“Dear White People. The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”
Sam is part of the Armstrong-Parker Halls of residence, an all-black space which is in danger of being “randomised”, essentially losing its status as a black-only halls. Sam runs for the Armstrong-Parker presidency, challenging the incumbent – and her ex-boyfriend – Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), whose father (Dennis Haysbert) is the university Dean. So it’s to the shock of the house when Sam wins the election.
It appears that change is coming. When Kurt Fletcher – the obnoxious son of Winchester’s President – decides to have his lunch in the Armstrong-Parker canteen, Sam has no compunction in throwing him out. Now whenever white people enter the canteen, a warning gong is sounded, and they are pelted with balls of paper.
The other two central characters are Coco (Teyonah Parris) and Lionel (Tyler James Williams). Similar to Troy, Coco’s disposition is to appease whiteness. She has no desire to instigate change. Her only goal is fame.
Lurking in the background of the story is Helmut West, an unscrupulous TV producer, looking for a campus story to turn into MTV-esque car-crash viewing. Coco beseeches Helmut to feature her. However, he’s not impressed, and implies she has to give him a reason to point his camera in her direction.
Lionel has ambitions to be a journalist, but is being stymied by prejudice from all sides: He’s gay, and feels isolated from the other black students; his afro attracts white hands like moths to a light bulb; his penchant for Mumford & Sons, and Star Trek doesn’t align with stereotypical black fandoms; and his overall anxiety & low self-esteem leave him without a place to call home.
“Dear White People. Please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”
Beyond the racial, gender, and sex politics, which – as described by Ashley Clark – “assumes the properties of a multi-stranded Twitter argument”, the film is really about finding one’s place in the world, and how acute that struggle is when you’re part of an oppressed group. The characters say and do things that will earn a few side-eyes, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that we’re looking at people in their late teens.
The desire for belonging is a common human impulse, but that desire can be esurient when one is young. One of the most welcome aspects of the movie is the messiness of the characters. A running theme is that they are all skilled at pointing out each others mistakes and hypocrisies, yet that analysis is absent when it comes to looking at oneself.
The story reaches its crescendo at a Halloween party thrown by Kurt and his privileged friends, who intend to cut “Sam White’s little movement down to size” – a party which is an emetic distillation of cultural appropriation.
“Dear White People. Stop Dancing.”
Tessa Thompson’s performance as Sam deserves to be starmaking. She has a presence that’s made for cinema. Similar to Teyonah Parris, she has that indefinable glow that is present among movie stars.
That’s not to minimise her as an actor. While positioned as the campus firebrand, insecurity plagues Sam. While it’s her acerbity that may stand out, watch the moments when she doesn’t speak. Thompson often places her hand on her neck, or covers one side of her face. Sam may be a natural leader, but she hates being seen as the “angry black chick”, and in private moments, looks as if she just wants to disappear. It’s superb acting.
I also want to give a mention to Kyle Gallner for his display as the insufferable Kurt. It’s an excellent exemplification of white, cis-hetero, able-bodied, male privilege, embodying the Barry Switzer line about being born on third base, and thinking he hit a triple. And I’ll bet in about 15 years time, Kurt’s going to be part of Jimmy Kimmel’s writing team, or have a column in the Washington Post.
It’s only the tireless work from The New Black Film Collective that resulted in the film’s overdue UK distribution. It remains to be seen how long it will be in cinemas, so if you plan to catch it, I’d suggest you do so now.
The film doesn’t always hit the mark with its targets. At times, writer/director, Justin Simien tries to do too much, the narrative progresses in an undulating manner, and the story we get might not be the one you expected beforehand.
But it would be unfair to brand the finished product as a failure. What shouldn’t be forgotten is this is Simien’s first film, and it’s one full of promise, and no little verve. I make it the fourth encouraging debut in recent years from a black filmmaker (the others being Ryan Coogler, Debbie Tucker Green, and Terence Nance), and they all appear to have differing approaches to storytelling, allowing for a broad range of black-centred tales.
Comparisons with Do The Right Thing are wide off the mark, as Dear White People leans more towards the individual than the collective. Simien describes the film as one of “identity vs. self”, and the resolution can be read in numerous different ways. My interpretation was that Simien isn’t saying, “You can’t sit with us”; rather, “Can you sit with us? We’ll get back to you.”
 – I think they missed a trick by not selling these gongs among the film’s merchandise. I would have bought one.
 – There’s a piece of physical acting that Williams does in a Black Student Union meeting near the film’s denouement that is an absolute delight. It’s these slight touches that bring a character to life.
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This is part of the Black Friday series on ALL BLACK EVERYTHING section of Media Diversified. We are publishing articles from a range of activists, poets, artists and writers which will culminate in a real-life discussion and meet-up in London on Saturday 1st August.