Review: “Dear White People”

It’s rare that I go to see a movie based on title alone, only having watched the trailer once. It is also rare that I see a movie that portrays my experience in such a way that I feel as if I am watching a documentary, and not a feature film. Dear White People is revolutionary, and even though this is a movie, it drives home the sentiment that the revolution will not be televised.

The premise of the film is that Ivy League Winchester University has recently placed a sanction in order to diversify its residence halls, but this sanction only seems to affect Armstrong/Parker Hall, aka the residence hall where the black people live. One of the Black Student Union’s most vocal students, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), has taken to the airwaves on her campus radio show “Dear White People” to express her opinion about the issue. However, not all of the students– black or white–share her “separate but equal is better” sentiment.

There’s privileged Troy (Brandon P. Bell) who wants to appease his father, who is the Dean of Students; Coco (Teyonah Parris) who wants to be famous, even if it means overdrafting her bank account for a weave; and Lionel (Tyler James Williams) who is searching for his place somewhere between afros, Mumford & Sons, and his Man Crush Monday editor at the student paper.

This is not a movie to expect Tarantino or Scorsese type cinematography, or even Judd Apatow or Diablo Cody’s level of finesse in their wicked, humorous screenwriting. However, Dear White People gets its message across and is entertaining. There is humor coming from Justin Simien’s pulpit, that clearly shows he either lived the events in the film or did a lot of research. I won’t compare him to Spike Lee, as I’m sure many have and will, but he is on to something Spike Lee a la School Daze-ish. He challenges many of the predominant millennial views of racism (we’re post-racial), activism (I’ll tweet using #Ferguson), social change (let’s rally!), sexuality (I just love people; I don’t like labels), and communication (text, sext, whatever).

Where Dear White People is at its best is in its portrayal of intraracial and interracial conflict on predominantly white college campuses. As someone who graduated from a PWI where white sororities and fraternities held “pimps & hoes” and “plantation” parties where they hired local black homeless people to dress up as slaves and pick cotton and serve drinks (for real), the events in Dear White People deeply resonated with me. It also succeeds in portraying the students’ resistance to acknowledge the privilege they inherently have by attending a university, but in doing this it does not take a side. This is not a white people are wrong and everyone else is right, or vice versa, film. It is also not a  movie that makes the college educated seem better than everyone else. This is a thought provoking film that challenges perceptions of what it means to be white or other– and it’s funny as hell.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Dear White People, knowing all of the lyrics to Lil Wayne’s songs doesn’t make you down. It just reminds me of how many times you say the N word when there are no black people around.”

“Did you have the Cosby dream again?”

“I woke up in a really big sweater with straight hair”

“Dear White People, dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”

“They want to be like us. I’m not going to go protest over a party.” 

“Can I touch your hair?”

“The only people concerned about racism are Mexicans, maybe.”

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I saw the film in Atlanta in a theatre filled with all black people. Dear White People is a movie that I fear will be total insider baseball– only seen by those whose experience it depicts, and not by those who need to see it most. I hope that every college and university in this country brings this movie to its campus, and has deep discussions among students and faculty about how we view race in this country, the ways in which people within a race view themselves on an individual level and the ways in which racism is perpetuated on college campuses.

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