You won’t find many instances of firebrand satires related to the issues related to ethnicity in America. ‘Dear White People’ came as a breath of fresh air in that regard. It won the breakthrough award at the 2014 edition of the Sundance film Festival. In fact, a group named New Black Film Collective came forward and helped the movie get a proper release in the United Kingdom, as they felt that there was a lot in this snappily written feature debut of Justin Simien, for it to deserve a wider audience.
The movie delves into various manifestations of the privileges granted to fair skinned people at a fictional university going by the name Winchester University. The status quo there is challenged each day by a popular campus radio show run by Sam White (played by Tessa Thompson) who delivers a kind of witty and hard-hitting discourse related to the ethnicity issues of the campus. She is one of the four main African-American characters who’re quite interestingly opposed to each other’s social and political agendas. The other three characters are that of Troy (played by Brandon P Bell) who is Dean’s son and is being primed for success, Coco (played by Teyonah Parris) who wants to be a reality TV star and Lionel (played by Tyler James Williams) who’s gay by sexuality and is a budding journalist.
The writer-director of the movie, Justin Simien has an excellent understanding of arguments and counter arguments, which are picked up from day-to-day life, and presented in a comic yet thought-provoking way. He very well understands that this isn’t an easy moment in the United States of America for someone who is of African-American origin and wants to portray the type of identity that he/she desires to. For instance, you can see a minor gay character greeting a fair skinned group with placating body language and then slowly moving into the company of African-American friends, turning rigidly street-smart.
The film reaches its crescendo via a scandal involving a Blackface themed Halloween party, which is attended mostly by fair skinned students, and then invaded by a dozen of African-American students in anger.
Justin Simien wants to make clear that his work is not an exaggeration of what actually happens every day in American colleges. He doesn’t want ‘Dear White People’ to be compared to something like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled from 2000, which had African-American performers showing their dissent at the commodification of their background and culture. Justin makes it clear that what he shows is the actual stuff that fair skinned people do, and he backs it up by giving pictures of the actual campus parties, during the end credits.
On the whole, it is the performances of Simien’s actors like Thompon and Williams that saves it from coming across merely as a lecture or a discourse. All in all, a must-watch!