Two years after Justin Simien wrote the first draft of the script, one year after he created a viral trailer that helped him raise $40,000 through Indiegogo to make the film and almost nine months after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Dear White People has finally hit movie theaters with a considerable reputation to live up to.
Luckily, Dear White People is also good. It's a well-executed satire, smartly acted (it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance) and has an interesting plot. It's set within the prestigious walls of a fictitious Ivy League college—Winchester University—and it follows the rising racial tensions on campus, partially fueled by the half-white but full "militant black" Samantha White and her radio show "Dear White People." The culmination is a high-profile racist incident on campus and the film is a look at how we got there.
Director Justin Simien has said that the film is about identity and it is that representation of multiple black identities that makes the film so successful. So often, roles for women and minorities are one-dimensional or steeped in stereotypes. Dear White People is, at its core, an excellent depiction of the diversity of the black experience—albeit in the microcosm of an elite university. Consider: we haven't had a mainstream television show or film about a black college experience since A Different World premiered in 1987.
The main characters are mostly black, but their stories depict wildly different black experiences. There is the overachieving, preppy golden boy who is the walking embodiment of respectability politics. There's a skinny gay kid who listens to Mumford and Sons and isn't white enough for the white kids nor black enough for the black kids. One young woman changes her name from Colandrea to Coco as a way of de-ghettoing herself and eschewing her "hood" roots in favor of white acceptance and fame.
There's a particularly excellent montage where we see four of the characters doing their hair before a night out. What makes the scene so perfect is that it reveals that, like the shades of our skin and the way we move through the world, black people's hair is not a monolith. You can have an afro or wear a wig; neither of those things is any more or less black than the other. We are large, like an afro. We contain multitudes, like any wig emporium worth its wigs.
In many ways, the film seems to be made for white people—they are, after all, the ones being addressed in the title. Justin Simien is holding up a mirror to his audience amd forcing them to see racism in all its different forms: hipster racism, microaggression, the notion that racism went out the window with Barack Obama's election, as well as outright, unfettered racism.
However, as with anything, viewers will only see what they want to see. There are certain moments that are so outrageously racist that anyone with a conscience will find them deplorable, but then there are more covert moments that are harder for black people to explain and for many white people to find issue with: a white girlfriend continually calling her black boyfriend "boo" even after he's asked her to stop, another white woman who won't stop touching her black friend's afro and a student cooing to his would-be hookup partner that he wants to, "eat him like a Hershey kiss."
But, in many other ways, Dear White People seemed like a film about race for the non-white Tumblr set. It is a patently millennial film—from the constant texting—the only person who ever calls Samantha is her mother—to the romantic relationships that eschew traditional labels. I imagine that a younger generation will heavily connect with this film: black kids who haven't yet had in-depth conversations about race in America, who don't yet know how to intellectualize and verbalize what they're feeling and who are still recognizing certain actions and systems as racist. There is almost certainly a middle class black kid attending an all-white private school right now whose new favorite movie is Dear White People, and for her, the film is working as a way of better understanding issues that she's likely experiencing but can't yet articulate.
I doubt most people will leave Dear White People feeling like they've found the answer or solution to racism, but that, of course, is not the point: or rather, that is the point. Not every film or piece of art that tackles race is about finding a cure for it. The story lines of the movie wrap up neatly, and still I was left with an incompleteness that felt authentic to the way I always feel after conversations about race. And these conversations, like the film, are enough.
Image via Lionsgate