I was surprised when Dear White People was made, more surprised when it won an award at Sundance, and borderline shocked when Justin Simien’s directorial debut got a distribution deal. I’ve been following Simien’s long-shot attempt for a few years since he first released a trailer that showed what he wanted to do with the college-comedy genre. From the beginning I was intrigued, as were plenty of others who joined a crowd funding campaign to pay for production costs, and yesterday I finally got to see the film.
A movie that explores race, identity, and class is bound to solicit commentary and Dear White People certainly has. I’m not qualified to offer much in the way of expert opinion but after waiting so long for this film there were a few things that stood out.
The film takes place exclusively on a fictitious ivy league university campus which seems like more than a genre decision for Simien. By placing his African American characters at what many consider the epicenter of tolerance and so-called multiculturalism, Simien makes the point that race prejudice is alive and well among those for whom the charge of racism would be a cultural death. Within these supposedly enlightened environs there will be the occasional acts of overt racism. The film builds to such a moment – a “release your inner negro” party hosted by some of university’s rich, white students – and it would seem overly dramatic except for the similar parties that happen every year on college campuses. You know, in real life. But, and this is significant, Dear White People also shows some of the countless micro-aggressions faced by people of color within majority culture environments. Quick asides, questions, and assumptions by many of the white students show how the African American students are regularly stereotyped, fetishized, or manipulated. Their individual identities are neither seen nor valued.
Simien has said that his film is mostly about identity and the lead character, Samantha White, embodies this. Samantha is biracial and becomes the president of the African American house and the face of the resistance against discriminatory housing policies. She also hosts a campus radio show, Dear White People (“Dear white people, Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” “Dear white people, Stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”) Most of the lead characters struggle with identity which makes sense in a film about college life. Well, the white kids don’t struggle with identity, not, at least, like the black kids are forced to. And no one struggles more than Samantha. There were moments here that felt a bit over-the-top, but I’ve had enough conversations with folks to know that this struggle is real. The visceral pressure to lean toward blackness or whiteness is strong and it’s a reality that white people will simply never experience. Dear White People does a great job of using a genre-comedy to examine this age-old American theme in a time when individuals are supposed to be totally free to choose the identity that best suits their experiences and desires. The films makes the case that we’ve not arrived at that point and it remains ambiguous on whether this is our best goal.
So there is much I appreciated. On the flip side, it felt like about a third of the film was great and two thirds was just OK. The main characters are meant to stand in for different types which doesn’t allow for much nuance; they often feel flat. More significantly, whiteness exerts a lot of influence in a film about black identity. Maybe this is an unavoidable truth about identity in America. Still, the most interesting moment of the film for me was when Samantha ends her Dear White People broadcast, “Dear white people… never mind.” If I read the scene correctly, she’s done with the responsibility of educating white people. Her identity and place on campus has a logic and value that doesn’t need the foil of whiteness for legitimacy. I’d have liked more of this in Dear White People, but with a title like that and a cultural reality like ours that may have been too much to expect.