For a movie in which the characters spend a good deal of time looking directly into the camera – not to mention one with the title Dear White People – this debut feature from writer-director Justin Simien is decidedly non-confrontational. The film is more interested in painting the current cultural landscape than setting it ablaze.
The particular landscape here is a fictional (and predominately white) Ivy League college, where a handful of black students are struggling, in different ways, to establish an identity that is true to their heritage, true to their aspirations and – most challenging – true to themselves. Among them is Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the host of the satirical radio show from which the movie gets its name. A proud defender of African-American autonomy, she nevertheless has a secret relationship with both a white teaching assistant and the music of Taylor Swift. Another student, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), is being groomed as the next Barack Obama by his father (Dennis Haysbert), the college’s dean of students, yet he yearns for a spot on the staff of the school’s legendary (and pasty) humor magazine. The two others the movie focuses on are Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), who wants to parlay her own identity confusion into a reality television show, and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), who, as a gay black sci-fi nerd, has by far the biggest challenge in finding compatriots on campus.
Both in terms of the writing and the performances, Williams’ Lionel and Thompson’s Sam register the strongest. While the others in the film – including Brittany Curran as Troy’s white girlfriend – struggle to offer more than the caricatures their characters are trying on for size, Lionel and Sam register as authentic humans who are at turns exhausted and lonely as a result of society’s emphasis on façade. Dear White People satirizes the fact that our increasingly integrated culture has in some ways only heightened the reliance on dismissive shorthand. In other words, easy identity has been elevated over complicated humanity.
The film is more interested in painting the current cultural landscape than setting it ablaze.
Simien is more effective in capturing this with his camera than his writing. Although the verbal debates recall the stiff stringency of John Singleton’s Higher Learning, in visual terms Dear White People has an invigorating vitality, especially for a comedy. The notion of shifting identities is reflected in the onscreen textual information (reminiscent of Rushmore) that reveals certain details about the characters. We see, for instance, Coco’s actual first name with a line drawn through it, as well as the fact that Lionel has scratched philosophy as a potential major. A more sustained visual invention is the re-enactment of one of Sam’s Dear White People monologues, about “the tip test.” As she deconstructs the complicated cultural signals that go into leaving a tip at a restaurant, we see the scenario unfolding on the screen (with Lionel watching from another table for a bit of a meta touch).
And while Simien also frequently draws upon the confrontational mise en scene of Spike Lee – especially with groups of people facing the camera while voicing a communal complaint – Dear White People is distinct from something like Do the Right Thing in that you never sense its primary aim is to provoke outrage. Even when Lionel gets his Mookie moment, raising his previously accepting voice to challenge a racist party thrown by the humor magazine, it doesn’t really register as an indictment of an oppressive system. Instead, it’s a lament, and a universal one, over the ways we often compromise our true selves in order to attain the most fleeting of acceptance.