“Dear White People” is a movie that you should see more than once to catch everything in it. It’s a movie that you watch with a group and discuss after. It’s a movie that will be studied in black film classes. That being said, in his attempt to put everything on the table, writer/director Justin Simien falls just short of greatness with his debut effort by not telling an entirely cohesive story.
The film focuses on four main characters. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the “voice of the people” on the Ivy League-esque campus of Winchester University. Her campus radio show Dear White People has just the right amount of edge and truth that it makes her a target of the Dean. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is a loner and writer whose afro screams that he wants to be noticed, but he can’t seem to fit in as a gay black nerd. CoCo’s (Teyonah Parris) real name is Colandrea Conners, but she’s ditched her southside Chicago roots for designer clothes and high society life. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) is everything his father Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) has groomed him to be, but not the comedian he wants to be.
After winning an election to be head of Armstrong House, the historically minority house on campus, Sam decides to implement new rules. No one can eat in the house who isn’t a resident. That includes Kurt Fletcher, son of the president of the university, and his white frat brothers who come for the “fried chicken and waffles”. This is just the beginning of a back and forth between the two races on campus. It eventually culminates into an on campus brawl as Kurt and company throws a party in which white students dress as black caricatures.
As the film moves toward the brawl we see a story of hypocrisy on all sides. It’s about who people project themselves to be versus who they really are. Each of the main characters have a part of their identity hidden to help them fit into a group and ideal. The biggest issue is that not all of the stories come together to push the overall film forward as a collective. For instance, Troy writes jokes and smokes weed in the bathroom, but we never see him pursue his passion outside of the glimpses in the bathroom. Is it really his passion, or just a plot point in the movie to show Troy has “another side”?
Visually, Simien shows skill in his grasp of the craft. From the opening frame, Simien tells us that we’re all going to consume his film differently. As a news story reports of the on campus brawl that happens in the film, we’re introduced to the main players. Each character sits center frame in their own environment taking in the news with varying level of concern. From black militant Reggie who hangs on every word, to Kurt who simply has it on as background noise. The frame says so much without saying a word.
Throughout the film characters are positioned speaking or walking at the edge of the frame as the camera pans with them. It’s a visual acknowledgement that “Dear White People” is pushing race conversations forward. It’s uncomfortable to see the characters without lead space to talk. As characters are framed within frames we subconsciously get a feeling of being boxed in. In one scene, Troy sits across from his dad in his office. A lamp sits right in front of Dean Fairbanks in the foreground, separating the dean from his son as if to suggest Dean Fairbanks is enlightened and Troy has a ways to go to be like his father. While the good dean may just be jaded and wise from life experiences, it’s visual nuggets like these that keep the film visually engaging and stimulating in keeping with its script.
“Dear White People” hits a lot of truths about the various experiences within the black community and how we assimilate with one another as human beings. While the story isn’t as compelling as films that it may be compared to like “Do the Right Thing” or “Higher Learning”, overall the film is fresh, unique, and entertaining.