Dear White People begins with a young woman named Sam who spouts off messages to the predominately white audience at her Ivy League college Winchester University. In her messages that always begin with “dear white people,” she presents information about how to not be so intentionally or unintentionally offensive and possibly racist in a society that tends to believe racism is over. These lessons range from explaining that maybe you shouldn’t have a bare minimum of black friends, to how awful it is to date a black man just to make your white father angry.
Her messages are slightly hypocritical. She doesn’t seem to have any white friends, and she hides her relationship with a white TA from her black boyfriend. These contradictions and hypocrisies are what fuels Dear White People, a film that not only is about race and the way we handle it, but about closing the gap between who we truly are and the person we present ourselves to be.
First time writer and director Justin Simien creates a cast full of inconsistencies and fear of social perceptions that makes Dear White People compelling. Sam (Tessa Thompson) often hides who she is while becoming the mouthpiece of the small black population of her school. When she runs to become the head of Armstrong Parker, the predominately black campus housing, she wins the election and takes a strong stance against the school’s attempts to scatter the black population throughout the school’s various dorms.
The former head of Armstrong Parker Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) does what his father – the Dean of the school – tells him to do. Troy dates the president of the college’s white daughter and following the path that his father wants for him, while he secretly smokes weed in the bathroom and writes jokes, planning his future that isn’t decided by someone else.
“Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) also has her own video blog about being black in a predominately white school, yet since she strongly feels more akin to the white population on campus, her blog doesn’t get quite the amount of traffic that Sam’s does. In an attempt to get on a reality TV show, Coco attempts to rebrand herself with more of a Sam aesthetic, which immediately boosts her popularity, even if it’s not the true her she’s representing.
The strongest of these characters though is Lionel Higgins – played by Tyler James Williams – who doesn’t feel like he fits into any demographic. Despite the assumptions that his skin and overgrown afro make him one way, he’s actually gay and is a Mumford and Sons fan. In the two camps at Winchester, he doesn’t quite make sense in either group. Lionel is shown acceptance by the school newspaper, who wants him to do a report on the race divide in his school. Lionel has been the sole black student assigned to the same dorm as the bro-ed out white dorm led by Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), also the head of the Winchester’s Harvard Lampoon-style satire paper. The school “comedians” decide they’re going to put on a party that parodies the racial tension at Winchester, one in which attendees must dress in their most stereotypical “black” attire.
At times, Simien’s script can seem like characters basically taking on different sides of race and different ways of hiding who you are, often feel like a presentation of ideas rather than fleshed out people. Occasionally Simien’s screenplay makes this work, but too often feels also like a debate of issues instead of naturalistic.
Dear White People straddles the line of parody and reality, feeling sometimes like some of these things might be too ridiculous to be true, until the end credits show that no, these awful things the film is talking about occur all the time. Dear White People is far less of a comedy than a discussion starter, presenting that to one side, racism might seem a thing of the past. To the other side, it shows how racial issues still occur all the time. Simien’s discussion of how we all hide, regardless of race is fascinating, even if the film does often feel unbalanced and off because of it.