Sam White, played by Tessa Thompson, is by far the most interesting character in Dear White People, Justin Simien’s satirical comedy drama and 2015 debut feature. Initially Sam is just a radio DJ in the predominantly-white and completely fictional Ivy League university Winchester College, and her popular broadcasts give the film its title; on air she offers witty and snarky advice suggesting, for example, that the token number of black friends a white student must have to not seem racist has just been raised from one to two. When her reputation as a militant voice on campus grows exponentially, it’s interesting to note how the film’s influential white male characters (Winchester’s President, played by Peter Syvertsen, and his obnoxious frat boy son Kurt, played by Kyle Gallner) seek to undermine or silence her. They’re fine with Sam as the presenter of a satirical radio show; less happy when she seeks to shake up the university’s status quo.
Sam is elected President of the university’s only black majority house, upsetting the odds by beating popular preppy guy Troy (Brandon Bell), whose father (Dennis Haysbert) is the Dean. It sets in motion a chain of events that revolve to an extent around the university’s popular media – in the form of a student newspaper, a satirical magazine, a student’s vlogs and a forthcoming reality TV show that will be filmed at Winchester – while also causing those threatened by her message and standing to retaliate. Eventually this leads to the film’s shocking finale, an invite-only party in a predominantly white frat house that encourages its predominantly white attendees to ‘free their inner negro’, resulting in a whole load of ugly business (blackface, racial stereotyping, etc) that finally unites the politically disparate black characters in condemnation. It’s an absurd and (no pun intended) blackly comic sequence which actually reflects similar incidents that have taken place in American colleges in recent years; Simien’s end credits include a number of photographs from such events, shaming the establishments in which they took place.
As this interesting drama unfolds some less convincing romantic dalliances play out. Troy starts off with a white girlfriend but ends up with Coco (Teyonah Parris), a black student who wants to appear on the reality TV show. Sam initially has a white boyfriend (Justin Dobies) but leaves him for Reggie (Marque Richardson), arguably the only student visible here with a more militant attitude than her own. And then there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a wannabe writer who cuts a lonely figure until he hooks up with the white editor of the school’s most prestigious student paper (Brandon Alter); Lionel is gradually accepted by the rest of the staff after he offers to write a piece about Sam, but it comes at a price (not least the fact that the paper’s white sub-editor constantly wants to touch his afro). The relationships in Dear White People change with the wind, which is true to life where universities are concerned, but unfortunately none of this coupling and de-coupling is particularly interesting.
Where the film does succeed is in its portrayal of shifting political allegiences and the way in which characters both seek and reject the idea of common ground. It’s also quite damning about institutional racism. At one point Haysbert’s Dean bemoans to his son the fact that his current boss, the President, was a contemporary of his at the college a generation ago; no prizes for guessing who had the academic upper hand at the time. There’s a sense of history repeating as the two sons of the men in question, Troy and Kurt, try to form an uneasy alliance. But Kurt is behind the offensive party at the end of the film, even though he goes unpunished, smugly bringing a lawyer in to defend himself in the face of weak questioning; any other student would, of course, be facing expulsion.
Is Simien suggesting that his fictional university serves as a microcosm of every second workplace across the United States? That may be the case, or it may be that his target is merely educational establishments. Some of the worst things said in the film are uttered by the man in charge, Winchester’s President, who asserts at one point that ‘racism is over in America. The only people who are thinking about it are, I dunno, Mexicans probably’ before suggesting to Sam – whose rabble rousing has angered him – ‘I think you long for days when blacks were hanging from trees and denied actual rights; that way you’d have something to actually fight against’.
Simien’s script contains as many zingers as salient points and Frank questions, but sadly it does turn every single character into a verbose orator, something that begins to wear thin as the film progresses. The same characters are less confident when their lives take them away from the front lines of student activism and journalism, even if their sexual relationships aren’t all that interesting, and gradually most of the main ones are revealed to be harbouring private doubts about their public campus personas, or are trying to live up to the expectations held by others. The writing is sharpest when Simien dismantles white liberal pretensions, but it’s also even-handed and there’s a lot of satirical material taking down Sam and Reggie’s campus activism as well as arguments and meetings involving the more right-on students. It’s an unusual debut feature, given the subject matter, and Simien offers a fresh and intriguing perspective on plenty of issues (especially if you’re watching as a white man based in the UK who has little knowledge of racial politics in American universities). His decision to have the actors deliver a number of lines while staring directly into the camera fits surprisingly well with the material, and the same can be said for the use of classical music on the soundtrack, while Thompson’s performance marks her out as one to watch.
Directed by: Justin Simien.
Written by: Justin Simien.
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Teyonah Parris, Kyle Gallner, Dennis Haysbert, Marque Richardson, Justin Dobies, Brittany Curran, Peter Syvertson, Brandon Alter.
Cinematography: Topher Osborn.
Editing: Philip J. Bartell.
Music: Kathryn Bostic.
Running Time: 103 minutes.