Dear White People

Synopsis: Dear Movie Lover: If you’re looking for a comedy that’s fresh, smart, and “non-stop fun” (Rolling Stone), you’re found it! A hilarious and thought-provoking satire about race relations, Dear White People is the story of an eclectic group of black students trying to navigate a predominantly white Ivy League school. Dealing with the college’s traditions and cliques is hard enough. But after a sequence of events including a controversial student election, an out-of-control party, and the arrival of a reality TV producer, once-quiet Winchester University becomes a hotbed of conflict.

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Dear White People 8.5

eyelights: its exploration of the issues. its strong performances. its mixture of drama and comedy.
eyesores: its ambiguous conclusion.

“Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”

‘Dear White People’ is the critically-acclaimed feature film debut of Justin Simien. Released in 2014, it discusses and explores race relations on the campus of the fictional Winchester University from the perspectives of four black youths.

It roots its events in a blackface-themed party that is organized by a Caucasian-led fraternity, creating quite a lot of controversy on the campus (this is likely based on a few real-life incidents that have taken place in recent years).

The picture takes us back to five weeks prior to the scandal, introducing us to our protagonists: Sam, a political radio host, Troy, the President of an all-black house, Lionel, a gay journalist and Coco, an aspiring media personality.

It lays bare the expectations and pressures that they face; each of them has been pigeonholed either by their friends, their family and/or themselves. They all feel that a so-called “correct” way of being black is being forced on them.

What’s interesting is that they’re all coming from different perspectives and are asked to conform in different ways: Sam as an activist leader, Troy as an achiever, Lionel as a conventional straight guy, and Coco as an urban “it” girl.

They’re all radically different, and none of them are right or wrong.

It’s just a question of what’s right or wrong for them.

What’s great about ‘Dear White People’ is that, in confronting its characters with these external and internal forces, Simien also challenges our assumptions or what being black is, can and should be. It forces us to re-evaluate our views.

Now, I’m an eternal non-conformist and I love to challenge people’s perceptions (all the while being an uptight, arrogant pr!ck), so I really appreciate that Simien does this. He essentially says “people are people”. Not black. Not white.

People.

I especially liked Lionel, a meek egghead with a wacko afro, who listens to Mumford and Sons and watches Robert Altman films. He’s odd enough to make me feel a little bit uncomfortable, but he’s also uncompromising enough to earn my respect.

Lionel is Lionel. Deal with it.

What surprised me, though, was the amount of homophobia that he has to endure. I suspect that Simien based it on his own experience of being gay, but I truly didn’t expect the hatred and abuse to be as prevalent in this day and age.

As far as the racial conflicts, though, I bought into it – especially after the events of the last few years (and even more so since the last U.S. election). There’s clear reason for black people to be angry and for whites to feel ashamed.

We can do better.

We must.

We’re all in this together.

If ‘Dear White People’ seems heavy, it’s also layered with an irony that no doubt generates big laughs with some audiences. Though the humour was lost on me, as I have no point of reference, the picture is rife with smart, sharp dialogues.

It’s also presented in an enjoyable fashion – for instance by using cheeky intertitles such as “The race war is over” to put its characters’ experiences in perspective. I also loved the introduction to each character as they watched the news.

The performances are equal to the material: the actors are superb and sell their parts perfectly – though, admittedly, my favourites were Tessa Thompson as Sam, and Tyler James Williams as Lionel, both balancing strength and vulnerability well.

I really enjoyed ‘Dear White People’. I loved that it was ambiguous in its message, that it blurred expectations, that it muddied the waters, that it forced its audience to reconsider their own assumptions about race and race relations.

It’s the kind of fodder that I relish; it breaks stereotypes.

It challenges.

More than in many generations, our assumptions are challenged in big ways. I wonder if we’ll rise to it or if we’ll all just be bystanders as the ground shifts beneath us. It’s both with worry and a twinkle of hope that I watch it unfold.

A movie like this one brings important questions to the table. It’s not just about racism, it’s about identity, about how we perceive ourselves and each other. I would really wish for this film to become part of the curriculum in schools.

We need to talk.

Now.

Date of viewing: October 1, 2017

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