In lieu of his own personal experience at college, Justin Simien writes and directs Dear White People, a comedy that takes aim at the race war and student housing situation at Winchester University. Samantha (Tessa Thompson) is the host of the radio show entitled “Dear White People” where each day she mocks a negative stereotype or some crazy assumption that white people have towards black people. Determined to have her voice heard, Samantha decides run for president of the Parker/Armstrong residence hall. After a surprise win, Samantha begins to setup a rally that will ensure that her fellow black classmates as well as herself are considered as equal on campus.
Right off the bat, I must admit that seeing a film like Dear White People at Sundance was a pretty hilarious experience. I love Sundance but lets be honest, the vast majority of people that attend the festival are wealthy white people who have no clue what it is like to be black. While sitting in a theater, I began to look around and would honestly say that the audience at the Eccles Theater was about 95% white. There is something comical about a film that serves as a satire to blacks being discriminated against playing to almost an entirely white audience. The situation was made even more comical when the film’s director/writer Justin Simien steps on stage to introduce the film and announces “to all the white people in the room, it is OK to laugh.”
Dear White People was definitely a film that I had on my must see list at this year’s festival. I have 4 black brothers and I love films that tackle race issues especially when they mock the absurd nature of racism. I grew up around my brothers and have seen them discriminated against many times especially in school. I have even been in situations where people have questioned my relation to my brothers simply because of their skin color. It kind of goes without saying that the idea behind this film is definitely fresh and timely, however, as much as I hate to say it the story is incredibly garbled.
The film starts off promising by introducing this prestigious university and a reality TV scout that wants to create a show called Black Face/White Place based on the campus. The film quickly starts introducing characters including a goody two-shoes named Troy (Brandon P Bell), an outspoken rebel named Samantha (Tessa Thompson, and a dorky writer named Lionel (Tyler James Williams). The fun begins when Troy and Samantha face off against one another for president. It is however, after the election where this film becomes more of a series of bad racial jokes rather than anything remotely substantial.
The biggest issue with Dear White People is that there are far too many characters in this film that the script seemed confused as to what it should do with them all. It felt like some of these characters were in the film as a way for it to be edgy and/or well rounded while others were completely pointless. The character that seemed to fit the whole edgy/well rounded description was Lionel, who is this likable dorky black kid that writes for the paper. Lionel, of course, is the social outcast in the black resident hall and also happens to be gay. The character feels extremely contrived rather than an actual student that would be at a college.
Out of the characters all the characters that seemed like they were added simply just for laughs and served little or no real purpose, the one that sticks out the most is Troy’s white girlfriend Sophie (Brittany Curran). At one point in the film, Sophie screams “fuck me with your big black cock” at Troy while walking in the hallway at school for no reason at all. The character is even used in the beginning as a really outdated joke where someone accuses her of only dating a black guy because it will piss off her parents. I understand that the film is suppose to mock and break down white vs. black racism, however, it misses the mark often and comes off as more mean spirited than anything else.
It is a real shame that the film doesn’t fully succeed at what it is trying to do, mainly because the performances all around are pretty damn solid. I thought that Tessa Thompson was terrific as Samantha. Her portrayal of Samantha had multiple layers and was rather complex. I like that she wasn’t just this one dimensional character and as the film went on we learned more background about her character and that what she was fighting for wasn’t just a race issue. Tyler James Williams as Lionel was very good and likable even though I felt the character was extremely cookie-cutter. I think those two were the strongest performers of the leading cast, while Brandon P Bell as Troy and Teyonah Parris as Coco were good supporting cast members that I would have liked to see more of.
The idea behind Dear White People all started with Simien‘s experience at college and making a movie trailer for a film that didn’t actually exist yet. The trailer went viral which lead to Simien starting an indiegogo campaign to fund the production of the film. Just like most projects on indiegogo, Simien wound up raising a lot more money than he expected, which lead to the film having a higher budget. As stated previously, the idea behind this film is fresh and current, but the story as a whole lacked that specific element that would really spark a conversation. I am very sad that a film that started off from nothing with a great idea turned into something that isn’t overly special. I really wanted to love this film but I honestly felt that it couldn’t get past the race issue for long enough to be clever and spark enough laughs or even a conversation amongst those watching it.
All in all, I think Dear White People is an overall missed opportunity. While moments like Lionel stating “This negro isn’t here to rape you” and a girl stating “I hate to admit it, but I do like Taylor Swift” actually creates a few chuckles and smiles now and again, the vast majority of the jokes come off as mean spirited and dare I say it, stereotypical. The acting for the most part is good, the idea is fresh and new, and the direction is pretty solid. It’s just the story, its message, and the vast majority of the jokes which is where the film falls flat. I do think that this one is still worth watching maybe just at home on VOD rather than at the theater. My biggest hope is that the next time Justin Simien writes and directs a feature that he digs a bit deeper than he did with this one.
MovieManMenzel’s final rating for Dear White People is a 5 out of 10.