Justin Simien’s Dear White People is a satire about the state of race relations in post-Obama America, its university setting acting as a microcosm for the rest of the US as well as recalling Spike Lee’s School Daze. Having said that, the film’s key precedent is another Lee film, the excellent satire Bamboozled, particularly its examination of the representation of blacks in American mass media.
The film is an Altmanesque multi-character film, with each protagonist representing a part of the film’s complex critique. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an angry, political young woman – few enough of those in recent cinema – who presents a radio show called ‘Dear White People’, which, in snappy one-liners, challenges the presumptions of race relations in Winchester University and, hence, the US. Apparently by accident, she is elected into the student council, having run on the policy to abolish the university’s new policy of randomized housing allocation – an attempt to end segregation at the university but, as she sees it, having the effect of breaking up any collectivised black community. Her policies create various tensions within the school, both in the students and in the faculty.
Dear White People has some very intricate plotting – every character is positioned in such a way to play a particular role in the film’s socio-political critique. Each one displays an aspect of blackness that Sam has criticised. Troy (Brandon Bell), Sam’s ex-boyfriend and the one who loses his seat in the council to her, is ambitious and driven and willingly places himself under the thumb of Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the white leader of the most aristocratic house on campus, in order to get ahead. Meanwhile, vlogger Coco (Teyonah Parris) is equally happy to mock and use her own blackness in an effort to further her career on TV. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the sole black occupant of Kurt’s house thanks to the randomised housing policy, is barely black at all, stereotypically speaking, but he does notice the racism and fetishizing gaze of the whites.
The film then is about trying to be a black person in modern America, where white people think that racism is dead in America and frequently reply that the blacks have nothing to complain about since they have a black president. The film seemingly effortlessly lays bare the continuing prejudice and assumptions still prevalent in America. When one white caller challenges Sam on air about why there isn’t a ‘Dear Black People’, she replies that there is Fox News and reality shows on VH1. Ultimately, however, the film is primarily addressing a black audience, using Sam’s example of the ‘tip test’ (an unanswerable riddle best explained in the film itself) to lay bare the difficulty of being yourself and also being black. Like Bamboozled, the film is about stereotyping.
Dear White People is an eloquent political film, particularly one fast-paced conversation between Sam and her white lover Gabe (Justin Dobies), which covers everything from political cinema to stereotyping and self-stereotyping. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of every debate (see the film for that), where the film works best is in its representation of political argument without always offering an obvious stance for the audience. With no character being 100% right or 100% wrong, you are often left to come up with an opinion on these complex matters yourself. And lest you think that the film is all about argument for argument sake, it ends with a disturbing whites-only blackface frat party, which would look like a gambit too far on Simien’s part if the film didn’t end with newspaper cuttings showing similar real-life events. If anyone in the audience gets this far still believing in a post-racial America, this should finish that.
Simien’s film then is also about complacency as regards the racial question in America. If outright racism is gone, or at least no longer acceptable in the mainstream, racism still remains in more subtle ways, running from fetishism to mocking and stereotyping. The film is also as much about confusion, both political and personal, with few characters ultimately clear about who they are and how they should act. The performances, particularly Thompson’s, here are excellent – none of the characters feel like a mouthpiece and their shifting personalities are more to do with their confusion than with a script that has points to make. Funny, angry, fair and complex, Dear White People is a very promising debut for Simien and an important intervention about race in America.