Blallywood Film Review: Dear White People
College is both challenging and exciting for an infinite number of reasons. For most, it’s your first time away from home, the homework is endless, the parties are epic, and just about everyone is horny. You’re on a swift path to self-discovery while balancing classes, extracurricular activities, and having a lot of fun. It’s often a confusing time as well as you are confronted with pressures to fit in, make friends, and share living space with perfect strangers, often of a different class, race, or sexual orientation. Justin Simien takes a sharp and witty look at the complexities of diversity on an elite American college campus with his quiet debut of Dear White People.
The plot centers on a student named Samantha White, played by Tessa Thompson, who runs the podcast that is the film’s namesake. Her and her friends inhabit an historically black residence hall that is in danger of integrating. The all-black dorm is a source of pride and comfort to the residents and they fear integrating would jeopardize the rich history and culture they’ve created within its walls. The story mainly focuses on the residents of the hall as they navigate a very white and very elite world full of bias, racial prejudice, and indifference. When the president of the University’s bratty son and frat leader plans a racist-themed Halloween party, the black students ban together to shut the event down.
We meet a diverse company of black characters throughout the film. Teyonah Parris plays Colandrea “Coco” Conners, a girl from the southside of Chicago so eager for validation that she overdraws her bank account for expensive weaves and wears blue eye contacts. Tyler James Williams plays Lionel Higgins, a gay nerd who is on the periphery of all three groups with which he identifies, never finding a safe space in any. And Brandon P. Bell plays Troy Fairbanks, the preppy son of bourgeois Dean of Students played by Dennis Haysbert (Are you in good hands?).
Simien was wise in showcasing the many ways black people make sense of the world and there is a wonderful multiplicity of black story lines that are deep and meaningful. He demonstrates diversity within the black experience while allowing everyone to express an authentic emotional humanity as they try to make a home of this strange and chaotic place. Think A Different World or School Daze as worthy comparisons.
The film’s tone is worth discussing. From much of the press, I assumed the film would be purely satirical. And much of the dialogue and action are a bit exaggerated throughout the first half, but as the film progresses it takes on a more naturalistic tone as the characters begin to become more of themselves, and finally the film is completely “on the ground” as the storylines are wrapped up. The convention, though frustrating as the trailer was slightly misleading, was actually pretty mesmerizing.
For the first half of the film, each student is grossly overcompensating, seeking validation and acceptance in something or someone other than self. As they grapple with identity in this elitist world, all within varying states of confusion and loss, they shed their pretense and defensive walls and their solidarity in the moment of taking down the fratty bad guys is quite gratifying.
However, as the stories unfold, some arcs never fully peak. I left with a lot of questions about many of characters. A few of the storylines felt unresolved. However, one storyline to which Simien seemed to give full attention is Samantha’s. Samantha is, essentially, a tragic mulatto- conflicted by the space she occupies between the two races. Her white father is deathly ill and she struggles to make sense of her grief and denies herself the true affection Mitch, her white on again off again “friend with benefits,” is so eager to offer her.
Her story is interesting and valid but the twist that is revealed at the end of the film just left a bad taste in my mouth. She uses her podcast platform and looming failing grade on a project she failed to complete as an excuse to catalyze the ending party catastrophe with little remorse. She then walks into the sunset hand in hand with her white boyfriend as if she did the entire student body a favor by showing them how screwed up they all are.
Troubling thematic principles aside, the movie was largely enjoyable and as a graduate of a predominately white elite University steeped in south tradition, I appreciated its message and point of view. Go see it. B+