He SAID: Dear White People…

Scott F. Evans

Dear White People is first time writer/director Justin Simien’s scathing examination of race in modern day America. Set on a fictional Ivy League college campus, it’s a film that speaks specifically to Millennials … with a larger message for all Americans. It asks the question, what does it mean to be Black in a predominantly white environment? Where do I fit in? Do I fit in anywhere? Is it even important to fit in?

The film follows the lives of four main characters: Samantha White (Tessadearwhitepeople3 Thompson), a militant, bi-racial radio host, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay would-be journalist, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), anointed son of the Dean of Students, and Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), an ‘around the way girl’ with aspirations for white validation.  Their lives converge and explode… when word leaks of a racist party planned by a campus humor rag.

While Dear White People takes a hard look at race, it’s ultimately about identity. The identity of each of the main players is shaped by external dearwhitepeople1circumstances. The militant black students are defined by the awkward nature of being a tiny minority in a largely white, classist environment. They feel that their fragile unity is under attack, by a school administration determined to “diversify” by dissolving the all-Black resident hall. There’s an underlying feeling that if separated, they will get swallowed up by the dominant group. The film slyly suggests that some form of functional unity is necessary for survival.

Simien’s script is excellent, if a little too overwritten. The dialogue is filled with smart wordplay, but the characters are so verbose and glib, it often feels like the screenwriter showing off. Characters debate (rather than talk to) each other. {But honestly… in an era of simplistic Black cinema, Dear White People’s elaborate exchanges are a welcome alternative.}

As good as Simien’s writing is, his direction is considerably weaker. He dearwhitepeople9gets good performances from all of his cast, but his staging needs work.  His compositions are sometimes distracting, with too many shots of characters in profile. Other neophyte tells include placing the characters too closely to the edge of the frame with dead space behind them. His visual language owes a lot (maybe too much) to early Spike Lee. Still, the film rarely betrays its low budget. With the exception of an action sequence near the end that looks cheap and rushed, Dear White People looks like it cost two or three times its actual production budget. That could be due to the exceptional work of cinematographer Topher Osborn.

dearwhitepeople7Because this film is set during our Post-Civil Rights, Post-Black Power, Post-Cosby, Late-Obama era, there’s a new question in play. What constitutes “selling out” in a heavily integrated, ‘Me First’ environment? These are the entitled children of privilege and hyper-individualism. One character initially balks at picking a side, preferring to dearwhitepeople8fence sit in order to further his career. Another character covets fame, no matter what the cost. Another willingly becomes a pawn in a subtle feud between older rivals. And another… is exposed as an anarchist who is more interested in stirring up discord as an escape mechanism — rather than actually fighting for change. Because the reality for this group of young adults is that regardless of what happens on a racial level at the college, they’re all destined for success. The upper class grandchildren of the Civil Rights era have no defining racial event to rally around. Jim Crow was defeated long before any of them were born. And now… let’s be honest… there’s actually a chance that they could be President one day.

Rating: THEATER

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