It’s daunting how predictable we’ve become when it comes to discourse about race relations and politics. In response to 2014’s “Dear White People” becoming a series, an angry user on Twitter asked “Why is there no “Dear Black People”?” In the very first scenes of the movie, while Samantha White is recording her college radio show “Dear White People,” character Kurt calls in asking “Where is there no “Dear Black People”?” Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” plays with perceptions of events, and ideas of chaos, by toying with our frustration with the normality of racial incidents, and stages a racial war that unfolds within the seemingly monotonous underbelly of Winchester College.
Simien crafts the narrative cleverly where the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. When the film begins we’re informed in the news about an incident involving a racially insensitive college party, and Simien takes us back days before the “race riot” explodes on to campus. Things come to a chaotic peak when college student Kurt is planning a Halloween party spoofing African culture. This becomes a conflict of interest with his father, who is the dean of the college. Samantha White is a controversial provocateur and radio show host at Winchester College who hosts her daily show “Dear White People.” The consistently volatile topic matter has ruffled the feathers among her colleagues within campus and begins creating tensions.
Simien follows a small group of college students, all of whom are questioning societal norms, and are struggling to figure out what’s expected of them, and what they really want in their lives. Simien’s film is very Altmanesque in the way characters clash and intersect, all seeking some sense of personal gain within the rising frustration within the campus. There’s Lionel who is never quite sure if he belongs with the African American students, who consistently criticize his large afro, or the Causasian students who often see him as their prop for social credibility. There’s Troy who is being pressured by his father to pursue political gain in the school despite desiring a career in entertainment, and Coco who is struggling with her racial identity and wanting to be accepted by the Causasian sub-group of college students.
As well there’s Samantha who is militant in her views of African culture, but harbors two secrets that could destroy her credibility as an activist. Most of the characters within the narrative are faced with the idea of loyalty and if they’re betraying their race by not living up to the standards set, or if they’re betraying themselves by not staying true to themselves. Justin Simien attempts to get down to the very root of modern race relations, and how every bit of interaction within “Dear White People” is basically just people using people. Along with unfolding ideas and plot turns that will evoke pretty passionate conversation among the audience, Simien derives some excellent performances from his entire cast, including Tessa Thompson who steals the film with the most complex and interesting character.
Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” is consistently and briskly paced with sharp ideas about racial exploitation, and how society can often view African culture as a novelty, and sometimes a fetish. Director Simien throws out so many provocative ideas and thoughts about racism, racial appropriation, and the idea of selling out, while also showing how ideals can often be hollow and are often for sale. “Dear White People” is stellar dark satire that asks tough questions, and boldly puts us in a position to examine our own perceived notions of conformity, equality, and the current social and racial climate.