Review: Dear White People

A scene from Dear White People

Dear White People is a film about 4 black students at a mythical Ivy League university that takes aim directly at white people with all their ignorance, bias, privilege and insensitivity. The film uses smart dialog, hilarious one-liners, and real people with real issues to deliver its message.

Spoilers ahead.

Tessa Thompson and Brandon P Bell at a Halloween party gone wrong
Tessa Thompson and Brandon P Bell at a Halloween party gone wrong

Tessa Thompson plays Samantha White, the student host of a radio show called “Dear White People” and an aspiring filmmaker. Tyler James Williams plays Lionel. Lionel spends most the film in a ratty looking Afro wig that is “a playground for white fingers.” He’s a writer who observes most action from afar. And he’s a gay man. Brandon P Bell is Troy, whose father is Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert). Teyonah Parris is Coco, a woman who wants to be recognized and known – seen as real.

All these characters are a mass of contradictions and complexity. All four are beautifully drawn and explored in a brief amount of time.

President of the university is a white man (Peter Syvertsen) who has two children at the school. Two children who are heavily involved with the 4 characters already described. They are Kurt (Kyle Gallner) and Sofia (Brittany Curran). There’s a subplot of rivalry between the Dean and the President. Both use their children as pawns in the rivalry.

There’s also a subplot of campus politics involving who will live at the traditionally black house when the administration decides to mix up the housing assignments to achieve more diversity.

The climax of the movie is a Halloween party thrown by the white students in which everyone is invited to come as black. The party is as horrible as you might imaging with masks, blackface, racial slurs and misrepresentation everywhere. Normally shy and reticent Lionel takes a group of black students, with help from the Asian students, to break up the party. There are fights, cops – all kinds of excitement. Samantha films it all and creates a boffo short film that finally gains her the approval of her taskmaster of a film teacher.

Like similar and very real racist parties on real campuses all over the country, this party makes national news. It forces the Winchester University administration and student body to take a look at their school’s culture. And it forces the audience, which I hope contains a lot of white people, to take a look with them.

Dear White People approaches the problem of getting white people to face and deal with racism in a way that instructs, informs and even enlightens. I recommend it to everyone.

Justin Simien was writer and director for the film. Effie Brown was producer.

I watched the 2014 film on Amazon Instant Video. I’m sure other streaming services have the film now, too.

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