In the midst of a tense confrontation under the guise of an academic warning, President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen) tells campus firebrand Sam White (Tessa Thompson) that she longs for the days of lynchings and Jim Crow, because that would give her something to truly fight against. As ignorant and hateful as Hutchinson, he’s more right than even he might have guessed. For Dear White People takes place in a time and place where racial tensions are just as potent, but manifest themselves in ways which are hard to identify and harder still to combat.
The real crime, in the world of Dear White People, is not violence or exclusion, but that so many of the people who live and (try to) learn at Winchester University cannot be themselves, because they are stuck in a system which demands they label themselves, pick a side, and stick to it. The tragedy of Dear White People is the denial of the true self. That it manages to be incredibly funny at the same is its genius.
Set at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University, Dear White People begins with the news that a riot broke out on campus in response to an African-American themed party. We flash back five weeks to the start of the semester, and from there, for the most part, follow four students:
- Sam is a Media Studies major who is a leading member of the Black Student Council and hosts a campus-radio show called “Dear White People”, where she calls out unacceptable behavior on the part of white students and faculty (“This just in: dating a black person to piss off your white parents is a form of racism.”) Sam lives at Armstrong-Parker House, historically a minority-occupied house, whose ethnic makeup has been challenged by the Randomization of Housing Act. Sam, encouraged by the BSC, runs for Head of House against her ex-boyfriend, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), son of the school’s Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert).Sam unexpectedly wins the election, and finds herself swamped by her H. of H. duties, her studies (which include making a film which uses minstrelsy to parody anti-Obama attitudes), her radio show (which is under scrutiny from the administration), her family life (her father is very ill), and her romantic life–but more on that later.
- Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is an undeclared student, leaning towards journalism, who finds himself the victim of homophobic pranks by the other inhabitants of Garmin House, which is led by President Hutchinson’s son, Kurt (Kyle Gallner). Though he professes no alliance with the other black students on campus, he is recruited by campus newsman George (Brandon Alter) to investigate the growing tensions at Armstrong-Parker, which include Sam’s forcibly evicting Kurt and his cronies (along with Lionel) from the house dining hall. There’s another kind of tension between George and Lionel, but…we’ll get back to that.Lionel’s investigation is aided by his transfer to Armstrong-Parker (where he finds himself neighbors with an unenthused Troy). He begins publishing on the situation, and things seem to be looking up, but then he finds himself at the aforementioned party, and…well, we’ll get back to that as well.
- Troy is under a deal of pressure from his father to be clean-cut, a grade-A student, and to become a lawyer. Secretly, though, he wants to be a comedy writer, and seeks a position on the staff of Pastiche, a campus humor magazine edited by Kurt. Troy is also dating Kurt’s sister, Sophia (Brittany Curran), who seems obsessed with his race. Troy does his best to fraternize with Kurt and his circle, but is disturbed by their casual racism. He meets Coco (short for Colandrea) Conners (Teyonah Parris), an Econ major who wants to be on a campus reality show, and they make a connection.Troy is humiliated by his loss to Sam, and further aggravated by having to live with Lionel, but as he begins to fully realize the predicament he’s in, he softens his tone. But then comes the infamous party, and…
- Coco is attempting to secure a spot on a reality show produced by Helmut (Malcolm Barrett), but he suggests that Sam is an inherently more interesting character, and when the YouTube stats for their respective videos affirm this, she changes her tone (“I’m gonna have to get real black with you for a second”), and then, when the repeatedly aforementioned party is first announced, she offers her services as an M.C., pointing out that, without a black person’s ostensible seal of approval, the party will automatically be deemed offensive.She attends the party, recording moments of it for her web-series, yet the nature of the party gradually gets to her, and she finds herself confronting the question of just how much she’ll put up with in order to achieve her goals.
Right off the bat (he said 800 words into his review), I should say that Dear White People is the kind of film which doesn’t conform to expectations. The trailers might have suggested a razor-sharp comedy which mercilessly skewers stereotypes. The reviews might have suggested that director-writer Justin Simien is a new Spike Lee. And the fundamental plot element of the stereotype party might lead one to expect an epic nightmare of minstrelsy with the intensity of, say, Do the Right Thing.
You’ll find all of these things in Dear White People–and yet, they are clearly not the heart of the film. The comedy is rooted as much in the internal struggles of the characters as much as their external woes. Simien’s approach is, ultimately, quite different from Lee’s. And the party actually takes up comparatively little screen-time. Hell, the titular radio show ends maybe halfway through (under pressure from the President). It’s a film that toys with you, that may elude you, that ultimately inhabits its own little world (appropriate for a film set on a campus–it reminds me as much of Damsels in Distress as Do the Right Thing).
Again, the film’s true theme is the subversion of one’s identity for the sake of fitting into a social construct–pressure which, the film shows, comes from without and within. The pressures which act upon the four principals form the real backbone of the film.
Sam, we learn, is biracial, the child of a white father and a black mother. That she has difficulty feeling like she belongs to either race is, we learn, the source of much of her inner tension. Sometimes this is played for laughs (when her secret affinity for Taylor Swift is discovered), sometimes for pathos (when she regretfully recounts how her childish behavior towards her father unintentionally drew attention to their respective races), and sometimes for human drama; at the outset, it seems a given that Sam is dating Reggie (Marque Richardson), a leading member of the SBC who is deeply fond of her. But in fact, she’s in love with the white Gabe (Justin Dobies).
Lionel tries to reject being categorized, outright saying he doesn’t “believe in labels”; he argues that his cultural tastes (Mumford & Sons; Robert Altman films) make him “less black”; he even seems reluctant to acknowledge his sexuality (though he seems to be pretty well outed). When the dean challenges him on where he belongs, comparing the campus to a jazz ensemble, and asking him what instrument he represents, he sheepishly replies “I don’t like jazz”. And though he seems to be on the verge of finding happiness with George, it becomes apparent that George is more interested in indulging a racial fetish. And what do we make of Lionel’s overgrown Afro, which he claims is a “magnet for white people’s fingers”?
Troy, meanwhile, is pressured by his father to be an exemplar–his relationship with Sophia is seen as advantageous, and he takes a diplomatic stance for most of the film; he calls out Kurt and his friends on their casual racism (“Y’all get country clubs–we get to say ‘n***a’!”), and disavows Sam’s antagonizing policies, claiming that he has never been a victim of prejudice. But behind closed doors he writes jokes, smokes weed (and exhales through a dryer sheet–a minor detail I quite appreciated), and watches Star Trek (when Lionel catches him doing so, he switches to a sports game). And when Sophia expresses racial-fetish attitudes of her own (“It used to turn you on when I talked that way”), it pushes him away from her and towards CoCo.
CoCo, for her own part, is more enigmatic than the other three, her self-denial beginning with her name (which she chides her parents for choosing). When Sophia first introduces her to Troy, she says “Cute…for a black boy”, and later tells Troy “I’m not into black guys”–and the film cuts to them in bed. When talking with Helmut about her appearance on the reality show, he asks her what part of Chicago she’s from, and she says 79th Street, prompting this exchange:
Oh! That’s South Side, girl. You know what they say: you can take the girl out of the hood, but you can’t take the hood out of the girl.
There’s nothing ‘hood’ about me.
But when Sam’s racially conscious dictums prove more popular than her videos, CoCo amps up the sass and, as noted, even agrees to host Kurt’s party, donning a blonde wig for the occasion. Though she, like the others, is disturbed by what the party turns into, she comments on it in a way which suggests she’s just not sure what to think anymore. I’ll get back to that.
And even beyond these four, Dean Fairbanks in particular displays a dichotomy of attitude; alone with Troy, he bemoans his subordinate position to Hutchinson (they went to school together, and Hutchinson was, shall we say, far less academically accomplished), and even scoffs at Hutchinson’s suggestion that “racism is over in America”; publicly, however, he demands that Troy behave himself, criticizes Sam for her actions and attitudes, and tries to force Lionel into one slot or another. The pressures of conformity are universal, but in the world of Dear White People, they’re especially toxic.
The party scene itself is a prime example of how the film does not give in to expectations. It’s an ugly, unnerving sequence, with blackface, masks, wigs, a tankard of “purple drank”, rapping, and all other forms of modern-day minstrelsy on display. It’s so ridiculous one would be inclined to accuse Simien of sensationalizing–which is why pictures of real racist parties from campuses across the country are flashed during the end credits. But the sequence itself, central though it is to the film, is comparatively short and doesn’t luxuriate in the loathsomeness of it all; what matters are the characters and how they handle it.
CoCo, hearing a partygoer lampoon one of her own videos, abruptly quits her hosting duties. Lionel, disgusted by what he’s seen (and disgusted when George says “I want to eat you like a Hershey bar”), first goes to Sam, who is too tired and burnt out to want to do anything, and then to the BSC, where he quickly recruits all those present to go and break it up. Troy, who has been forced to attend an alumni/donors event, sees images from the party on Facebook and defies his father’s sense of decorum to tell him of it. And Sam, who initially demurred from intervening, takes her camera and heads over, where she confronts CoCo, who says in a despairing tone that whites are indifferent to black history and covetous of black culture, and their desire to indulge in it for a night is not worth stirring up controversy over.
The party scene is less about exposing or exploring appropriation and white racism, as it is about reflecting the continuing and corrosive effects of racism through the prism of these characters. It’s less a political film than a human one, and as such, some may criticize it for being soft or toothless–but that, I think, is missing the point. Simien, in a post on The Root, expressed his goals pretty plainly:
Of Lee he says, “He opened my mind and let me know I could make movies like this … but in Do the Right Thing he talks about how racism works, and in Dear White People what I wanted to talk about is identity.”
Indeed, as incisive as the more pointed comments on race and racism are, it’s the little human moments that really make the film work: an unguarded moment between Lionel and Troy, who says, “If I’d known you in high school…I’d have had your back”; Sam, debating the import of her neo-minstrel satire with Gabe as they go into her room and start making love without missing a beat; a strikingly staged pillow-talk montage between Troy and CoCo as they ruminate on their attempts to be a part of “respectable” society. For a film as rooted in profound discomfort as this one is, its protagonists are fundamentally likable, and not, I contend, in any way that diminishes the import of their actions.
The acting goes a long way to achieving this. It’s a remarkable ensemble, and I erred a bit when I suggested that the film really rode on Thompson’s shoulders–but the excellence of her work is no small part of the film’s greatness. She makes Sam-the-activist and Sam-the-pundit just as convincing as Sam in her haunted, frustrated moments; aside from one speech near the end which felt the tiniest bit self-conscious, Thompson proves to be the heart of the film in so many ways: tough, warm, conflicted, and embodying Sam’s intelligence rather than just playing it, she really should be in the awards conversation. She’s funny and poignant in equal measure, and never allows Sam to become a mere demagogue–however conflicted she may be about who to love, Sam’s social awareness and sincerity is never in doubt.
Lionel is in many ways Sam’s opposite: she attempts to occupy a firm social niche, but human nature interferes, while Lionel tries to avoid occupying any kind of niche, but societal reality interferes. What makes Williams’ performance work so well (though credit must go to Simien as well) is that Lionel never becomes a mere mumbling, withdrawn nerd; he is baffled by the world’s desire to peg him, weary of Kurt and company’s harping on his sexuality, and nervously unsure of his socio-racial status (as one white character quips, “You’re only technically black”). Williams never misses a step in animated Lionel’s profound confusion, but spices it with moments of explosive energy (which were doubtless nurtured during his time on the Disney Channel), the most gratifying of which comes near the end, when he finally gets his revenge on Kurt. Williams is simply remarkable throughout.
Bell is no less good; he’s smooth and suave, but never a handsome mannequin. He’s effortlessly charming (I suspect he’ll do all right for himself in the years to come), but his comic timing is also superbly assured, from the little takes he does in the face of stupidity to his shake of the head when one of Kurt’s acolytes drops an N-bomb to his takedowns of Reggie’s insults and the Garmin men’s attempts at appropriation. Though Bell is the closest thing the film has to a straight man, he has none of the blandness one often associates with that term; he perfectly evokes the clean-cut exterior and the frustrations which bubble underneath.
While I’d argue CoCo is slightly let down by the script at times (she has the least screentime of the four leads, and it does show a bit), Parris is just as accomplished as her castmates, strikingly glamorous while, again, incisively capturing the heartache and confusion which comes with being, as the poster puts it, “a black face in a white place”. It’s hard to explain just how natural, how real Parris feels when she’s negotiating with Kurt and company, but I saw in her performance all the girls I’d seen at dying parties who were bored and weary of the horny, drunken men around them. Parris is, simply, yet another dynamite performance in this incredible ensemble.
And the supporting cast is just as good. While Haysbert might not be the shoo-in for Supporting Actor I once assumed, he makes each of his moments count, both his stern, authoritative challenges to Sam, Troy, and Lionel, and his bemused reactions to human folly (i.e., racism). At the end–the great, cynically acute end–he has a reaction to Helmut’s offhand, condescending explanation of the word “re-enactment” which is so brief and so simple, you might not notice it, but if you catch it, is absolutely hysterical.
Gallner is as thunderously douchey as an individual of Kurt’s nature is likely to be, but like the rest of the cast, he has enough human dimension to avoid becoming a stereotype; for better or worse, Kurt’s shittiness rings true. Syvertsen maybe pushes the smugly oblivious President just a hair into the range of caricature, but his awfulness is quite funny, so it’s not too big of an issue. Richardson embodies the revolutionary spirit (tinged with a longing for Sam) extremely well; Dobies is simply effective at portraying Gabe’s earnestness; Curran is squeakily amusing.
And, of course, there’s Barrett, hovering around the edges of the campus and the film, offering a cynical, knowing perspective on the madness of the campus, and of the world in general. At the film’s end, after the party has occurred and has made (or will make) national news, Helmut goes to Hutchinson and Fairbanks and proposes doing a reality program about the campus’ racism. Though Fairbanks is disgusted by the idea, Hutchinson, when told that this program will bring in quite a bit of money (especially considering that donors will likely be less forthcoming in the near future), asks, “How much?” Helmut chuckles at this, as he and we know that all the complexity and truth of the situation will be potted and sensationalized for mass consumption, and the film ends on Barrett’s perfect note of knowingness.
A character and dialogue-driven first feature might not be expected to have strong direction, but Simien’s work is subtly magnificent. The whole film has a formal, carefully composed, tensely self-aware nature which perfectly reflects the prevailing themes of identity crisis and self-consciousness. Simien stages the film with a clear, almost theatrical eye, and I really can’t talk about his work further without bringing in cinematographer Topher Osborn, whose incredible work here is sure to be overlooked, yet is among the best cinematography of the year. It’s not bold, flashy cinematography in the Roger Deakins mold, but something very special, and continually pleasing to the eye.
The compositions are constantly stiff, precisely posed, cunningly arranged; at one point Kurt suggests that Troy is just a pawn in a chess game between Fairbanks and Hutchinson, and indeed the characters often seem to moving in rigid, pre-ordained directions, or holding themselves at dramatic angles; often the camera is startlingly close to the characters or follows their movements precisely. The feeling is almost one of a microscope, pinning these characters down, making them aware of the eyes that are always upon them, looking into them as they must look into themselves.
Simien and Osborn give the film a visual language so perfectly in sync with the themes of the film that I prefer it over the beautifully composed but ultimately meaningless shots in films like Under the Skin or The Immigrant; here is a true aesthetic, here is a film crafted entirely of a piece, and it’s gratifying to watch in ways that so few films are.
Though a composer is credited (Kathryn Bostic), the soundtrack is predominantly classical, often chosen to evoke the bubbling tension, the melancholy, the unsettled aura of Winchester. Rap is also used; I want to say there might be an original song over the end credits, but don’t quote me on that. Phillip J. Bartell’s editing perfectly juggles the various narrative threads; like the direction, it’s subtle enough that you might forget just how great it is. The production and costume design are quite satisfactory.
And do I really need to say anything more about Simien’s script? It’s one of the very best scripts of the year–funny, thoughtful, incisive, complex–it’s the kind of script that could hardly help but make a great film. Some might find the portrayal of the white characters one-dimensional. But since it’s not about them–and since, on reflection, their actions are depressingly believable (except for Gabe, who’s a genuinely good and loving individual), I cannot accede to any such complaints.
When I saw the very first trailer for Dear White People, I feared it would become preachy even as it tried to make a valid point. But I was very happily proven wrong. I won’t say that it’s an absolutely flawless film; there are fleeting moments of obviousness and I do wish CoCo had just a little more to do. But it takes such a vital, relevant topic and brings it to life with such fascinating, sympathetic, perfectly-played characters and such sharp, precise direction that it becomes easily one of the best films of the year. In fact, I’d initially scored it a 90, tying it with The Dance of Reality for the year’s best film.
But no–the more I reflect on it, the more I realize how much it offers the viewer to reflect on, it becomes clear that it really is the best of the year to date. Will it maintain that position of primacy? I don’t know. But Dear White People is an absolute must, a tonic in a world of Madea and minstrelsy.