Thought-Provoking 'Dear White People' explores campus racial tensions

Code Red

By Omar Mahmood, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 26, 2014

“You’re listening to Winchester University’s only college radio station.”

Dear White People


B
State Theatre and Rave
Code Red

A smug-looking woman with her hair in a bun leans into a mic, radio gear on. In a voice that suggests Samantha White (Tessa Thompson, “For Colored Girls”) has just about had enough, she opens the floor for the contemporary college social justice debate to take to the big screen. “Dear white people...”

The beat drops. Time slows and heads turn. Ridiculously and stereotypically dressed white people turn around in affront, looking as if they’ve been plucked out of the ’50s, complete with suede briefcases and Ivy League caps. The campus is the fictional Winchester University, a prestigious institution to which people of Ann Arbor will be able to relate. The discussion that we’ve had here on our campus for so many years is addressed in unforgiving exactitude In “Dear White People.”

Sam and her team at the Black Student Union are fighting for their right to keep Armstrong-Parker, the historically Black residence hall, in opposition to the Randomization of Housing Act. Their inflammatory rhetoric is met with resistance and scorn from the rest of the campus, especially from Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), the spoiled son of the school president. He and his elite crew decide to throw a wildly offensive African American-themed rager at the end of the year on the same night as the donors’ dinner (surprise).

Sam continues, “A minimum requirement of Black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.”

Of course, she is often met with scorn from other Black students. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell, “Family Tools”), the son of the Dean of Students, shrugs off the movement. “I just don’t get it,” he says. “I mean, I haven't run into any lynch mobs.”

Reggie (Marque Richardson, “The Newsroom”) from the Black Student Union retorts, “Yes you have. It’s called the Republican Party.”

And so first time writer-director Justin Simien turns his film into a decided polemic, sorry-not-sorry style. His script is mouthy, verbose and brutal. Beneath the film runs an undercurrent of constant angst over identity, and a contempt for the white establishment on the elite American campus that Winchester represents and that Sam calls “Fletcher’s Plantation.”

“Dear White People” is an ensemble film. But Simien stretches himself thin in trying to portray every single way that a Black student can “survive in a white world.” There is Coco (Teyonah Parris, “A Picture of You”), whose straight hair weave comes to symbolize her hurting desire to be white. There is Lionel (Tyler James Williams, “Unaccompanied Minors”), estranged from his Black community because of his homosexuality, but a “Negro at the door” for the white friends he makes at a campus humor magazine.

Simien wants each of his characters to stand for a typified struggle — being a dark-skinned girl, being a gay Black man, being a Black man who has to “act white” to become class president. Each of these struggles can be explored in its own right in a stirring narrative of its own. But in trying to showcase them all, Simien struggles to do justice to each one and each of these students comes across as a stock character.

The exception is a fulfilling personal arc in Sam. By the film’s end, she shows a vulnerability that speaks to a depth behind her otherwise one-faced militant demeanor. Her father is white, and since she was young she has been filled with insecurities about her own identity, and they are transposed in Freudian ways onto her relationship with her white boyfriend. She fears the Black Student Union will not accept her for it, and so Simien adds another aspect of drama as she navigates between her boyfriend and the guilt she feels in thinking she’s betraying her community.

The drama is contrived, and though it is unpredictable, the story very quickly becomes a mess. The amount of coincidence in the film often renders it ridiculous. Simien did bill his film as a satire, but the exaggeration and overdone drama instead make it more like a soap. In any honest estimation, the film is not the fulfilling story it wants to be — but it does warrant some thought-provoking questions.