It’s been a few months since a horde of mostly white, supremely foolish college students threw a blackface party (and were caught on camera), but “Dear White People” is no less timely for that. Such callous antics will likely continue. And more to the point, writer-director Justin Simien is far more interested in indicting our media culture, whose standardized and largely inaccurate images of black men and women arguably do a lot more damage to black psyches and representations than a few insensitively themed parties ever could.
College happens to be where many of the news-making blackface parties took place, but it turns out to be the perfect setting for the game of self-invention the film’s four African-American protagonists play as part of the traditional campus experience.
Their struggles to find their true selves, free from external pressures, comprise a moving drama that transcends its stilted pacing, overstuffed script, and clever-but-not-funny jokes. It wasn’t the film’s faults that stayed with me for days after, but its compassion, its moral and narrative sophistication, and its rare ability to offer genuine catharsis.
The provocation within the film’s title is both a crucial theme and a red herring: the central quartet all get irritated at different white characters at various moments, but their circumstances and worldviews are so disparate that they’d voice vastly dissimilar complaints — if they chose to complain at all.
Simien smartly utilizes the foursome, all of whom feel simultaneously individual and universal, to explore issues of white privilege and modulating blackness, as well as homophobia within the African-American community, the insidiousness of reality TV, the coopting of art by politics, the corruption of the university system by outside money, and the limits of campus activism. (Like I said, it’s overstuffed.)
Our way into the fictional Winchester University is Sam (Tessa Thompson), a budding filmmaker eager to tell her peers, the school administrators, her campus-radio-show listeners, and her YouTube viewers that they’ll have to work harder to not be racist from now on: “Dear white people, the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”
But Sam makes the classic college mistake of making the personal political, and it’s heartbreaking to see this natural loner take on a leadership position she isn’t comfortable with as head of the “wannabe Black Panthers” group and wrestle with misplaced guilt over having a white boyfriend (Justin Dobies), even if her bedroom command to him, “On your knees,” is also damn sexy.
While Sam is the toast of the fictional Ivy’s Black Student Union, Lionel (Tyler James Williams, “Everybody Hates Chris”) is its outcast, a gay student journalist who feels equally out of place in black and white circles. For a chance at joining the prestige campus newspaper’s staff (a step up from his current place at Winchester’s alt-weekly), he agrees to embed himself at the historic black dorm to spy on Sam and her struggles against the racial integration of the dorms.
Lionel’s the primary victim of other black students’ assertions that he’s not “black enough,” while he’s fetishized by a potential (white) lover for his dark skin. Another Caucasian student tells him he’s only “technically black.” Though the other black characters are also subject to the insatiable demands of “be more black/but not that black,” none are as victimized by them as Lionel, whose eventual journey toward self-acceptance proves rather gratifying.
The other two characters in the central quartet feel more remote, closer to sympathetic caricatures. The dean’s clean-cut son Troy (Brandon P. Bell) strains against his father’s rules and micro-managerial plans for his future, even his love life. Troy gradually discovers that his father’s obsession with conventional achievement cuts off the career path the young man would like to follow — yet another reason for Troy to doff his J. Crew cardigans and hide in the bathroom and wile away the hours on a less-than-salubrious habit.
Perhaps the most miserable of all is Coco (Teyonah Parris, “Mad Men”), an ambitious economics major with a glam side whose milk-chocolate hue renders her invisible to the white boys at school. (She has a sensible, if truly sad, rationale for preferring the Caucasian students to the black ones.)
Coco is arguably the least coherent character; it’s improbable that a girl so determined to join the preppy blue bloods would also pursue stardom on a reality show. A producer (Malcolm Barrett) tells the poised young woman that’s she’s not enough of a stereotype (“the loud, angry black woman,” essentially) to be on TV.
Instead of taking the producer’s comments as flattery, Coco uses it as constructive criticism and begins to play-act the role of a future Real Housewife, complete with gif-able, emoji-like facial expressions a la Nicki Minaj (though Coco would probably tell you she was going for Katy Perry).
In addition to reality TV, the film is an occasion for Simien to deplore the current state of black representations in cinema, including the anti-intellectualism of Tyler Perry, the existence of three Big Momma’s House movies, and a racial deconstruction of Gremlins: “The Gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken, and freak out when you get their hair wet.” The four main actors, all uniformly excellent, can wrap their tongues around Simien’s verbose dialogue, but some of the minor actors have a harder time, resulting in several jokes falling flat.
After circling around each other and their white classmates warily for the duration of the movie, three of the four eventually converge at the blackface party. The party scenes first offer nausea and later catharsis, but Simien adds a last-minute mystery: Who threw the party? The wily culprit and his or her reasons for doing so tie together Simien’s thesis that you don’t have to be malevolent person to be racist, just a thoughtless one. (Take heed, Blake Lively.)
There are no racists in “Dear White People,” since it takes place in a world like ours where only the most marginal of folks would profess to be one. And yet racism — along with its slightly more benign cousin, white privilege — seems to be everywhere. “Dear White People” is an empathetic exploration of both how difficult it is to navigate this paradoxical new world and the burden that “otherness” can inflict.