Directed by first-time director Justin Simien, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film follows four black students at a fictional Ivy League school. Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts “Dear White People” and continues to crusade against people and programs she finds racist. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) tries to get along with the rich white kids to appease his father, the Dean of Students. Colondrea, or Coco (Teyonah Parris), tries to get cast on a reality show and tries to depart from her lower class Chicago background by acting white. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) conflicts with being a black and gay and facing bullying from multiple fronts. Their stories all entwine around one Halloween party where some white kids host a “black” themed party. Chaos, satire, and emotional arcs ensue.
When you look at a satirical film, I think it helps to figure out what the film was attempting to do, how it approached the subject, and how successful it was on those fronts. The film’s central purpose is spelled out in the title of the film, making it clear that the film is supposed to inform ignorant white people certain things about black people that they might not understand. This ranges from asking white people to not touch a black person’s hair to making it clear that you really shouldn’t say the n-word just because it appears in a rap song you’re listening and singing along to.
With all this in mind, the film sets about to analyze these issues with identity and race in the Ivy League setting. The main way of doing this is through monologues, usually delivered by Sam in the form of her “Dear White People” radio shows. These sequences are funny and witty, and Thompson delivers them with eloquence and personality. The main issue with these segments and other moments where characters discuss race is that they at times feel really inauthentic. A lot of these lessons and lectures are delivered with rapid paced dialogue, with tons of buzz words thrown in the mix. At times it can be a bit hard to follow, while other times it feels awkward and phoned in.
That’s not to say there aren’t any effective moments of social commentary in this film. Lionel is probably the most relatable character in the film because he doesn’t tend to get too long winded in his issues. For him, a lot of what he says and does is reactionary. He deals with racism in his dorm and on the staff of the school paper, and most of how he responds is through facial expressions and silence. It shows how this is effecting him when he looks resigned and defeated, but the film carries his arc by showing him finally breaking through and being active in his story, with his first real move being when he informs the Black Student Union about the Halloween party.
At the same time, there really aren’t many good white characters in the film. That’s not to say the film is prejudiced against white people (and the film goes into how white people can be victims of prejudice and not racism), but the film suffered from a lack of dimension. There is Sam’s white boyfriend, who is a lot more understanding and willing to listen to her, but he doesn’t really impact the story in any way. Troy has a white girlfriend, and based on how early scenes with her went I figured she might have some role in dealing with her brother’s racist party, perhaps having a mini character arc for herself. Sadly, she vanishes partway through the film and has no real impact on the story at the end. I feel the film could have maybe benefited from showing multiple sides and perspectives on the issue.
So what overall worked and didn’t work with this film? Overall, I’d say the characters, while at times broadly defined and a bit one dimensional, were still very intriguing and interesting to follow. The film doesn’t have a magical resolution that ends racism forever, but it does have some resolution for the characters. I do think the film could have found more organic ways to discuss the subject matter, but I’m still not upset at how most of the subjects were discussed. If anything, I’m glad this movie at least chose to address the subject. How blacks are treated in America, especially in certain institutions, is an issue that is still relevant today, and by focusing on young people, it can look at how the Millenial generation will handle the issue going further into the 21st century.