A lot of people interested in race issues (including myself) have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Dear White People, a film about a group of black students at a mostly white university that was funded through Indiegogo and eventually made it to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival where its writer/director Justin Simien won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. With Dear White People currently earning a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and spreading to theaters nationwide this week, the film has palpable momentum as issues like white privilege, cultural appropriation, and the systemic racism and discrimination illuminated by Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri are getting more attention than ever. But even with its seemingly perfect cultural timing, is Dear White People as relevant and hypeworthy as it seems? Watch the trailer for Dear White People below.
The film takes place at the fictional Winchester University, an Ivy-League-type school whose small population of black students has been roiled by new housing rules that have effectively eliminated the school’s only traditionally black residence hall, Armstrong Parker House. That issue gets a jolt when Samantha White, a black film student (Tessa Thompson), unexpectedly becomes head of Armstrong Parker, deposing golden boy Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) who also happens to be the son of Winchester’s dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Sam, an artist at heart with a rebel soul, shares her outspoken views on racism and cultural identity on her radio show “Dear White People”, informing the white student body why racism is flourishing and why many of the ways white people attempt to prove their lack of racism fall flat.
Sam is secretly dating a white teacher’s assistant in her film class (Justin Dobies), but she used to date Troy, who’s having his own problems with his white girlfriend (Brittany Curran) who happens to be the daughter of Winchester’s president (Peter Syverston) who’s jerk of a son (Kyle Gallner) runs the school’s National Lampoon-like comedy magazine Pastiche, which Troy would love to join. Also vying for a place on Pastiche is Colondrea “Coco” Connors, a black student (Teyonah Paris) who believes the best way for her to move up in the world is by assimilating, though she’s willing to be more controversial if it earns her more YouTube subscribers and a role on a reality show casting on the campus. Meanwhile, the more militant Reggie (Marque Richardson) has a crush on Sam and seems to be a more socially and culturally acceptable match for her. Bearing witness to all of this is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay nerd (though he hates the categorizations) who doesn’t feel comfortable in any of Winchester’s social groups, though he seems to find a home with the school newspaper, whose editors feel that Lionel’s blackness will give him extra insight, access, and permission to write about the race issues brought out by Sam’s election.
If that seems like an awful lot of characters and subplots, it should, and my main problem with Dear White People is that it tries to do way too much with too many characters, like Simien felt that this may be his only chance to make a feature film so he had to jam everything he’d ever wanted to say about racism and racial campus politics into this one film. This leads to a movie that’s constantly jumping from issue to issue, character to character, and subplot to subplot, providing a lot of breadth without much depth. The acting is mostly good with dialogue that’s a little too earnest and on-the-nose. And as someone who’s done some stand up comedy, I was personally offended by the fact that all of the people involved in or aspiring to join Pastiche are the film’s most humorless characters, though the film is consistently seasoned with clever humor.
Dear White People may suffer for its many ambitions, but I’m certainly glad it has them and am even more glad that this film exists at all. That’s because Dear White People is the first film to really address race in the post-Obama era head on, where even influential black people like Pharrell, Raven Simone, and Donald Glover (in what’s called the “New Black” movement) have declared that racism against blacks is no longer relevant, seemingly agreeing with white republicans who go further to claim that even invoking the subject of racism amounts to race-baiting unless it’s talking about how straight white people are the only REAL victims of discrimination in America today. And I understand how a lot of young people may honestly feel that racism is a relic of the past that America just needs to get over, especially since so many of their pop culture heroes, and even the nation’s first family, are black.
But that idealistic, or perhaps ignorant, mindset doesn’t seem to have an answer to things like Ferguson, republicans’ blatant efforts to disenfranchise black voters, how black people are discriminated against in the workplace, or the large, small, and inadvertent indignations that so many black people continue to face every day just because they’re black. And Dear White People is quick to point out that sometimes these indignations come from within the black community itself, as characters sometimes struggle with their own blackness, worrying if they’re seen as too black, not black enough, or can be comfortable carving out their own spaces somewhere in between.
Dear White People is sure to become both a cult hit and a staple on college campuses across the country, and I’m glad for it since the movie ultimately ends with more questions than answers. And with an issue as multi-faceted as racism, that is as it should be — if there really were easy answers, we’d all agree on them and quietly and unanimously abolish racism forever. But there aren’t, especially as a large percentage of Americans refuse to even acknowledge that racism and its role in America’s history have any effect on how Americans live today. But one thing Dear White People is crystal clear on is that racism exists, and that we’re nowhere near the post-racial America so many wish us to be.
As my girlfriend and I were leaving the screening of Dear White People, an older black woman who was reviewing the film stopped us to ask what we thought of it. Because what struck her most about Dear White People is how most of the issues that were brought up in the film are the same ones she faced as she fought for black people’s civil rights over 50 years ago. And that’s a message that republicans and the so-called post-racial generation need to get through their heads. Just because you don’t see racism or don’t want to see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. As Bergen Evans said, and quoted in the movie Magnolia, “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” Or perhaps more appropriately regarding racism in America, we can look to William Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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