Dear White People

Posted by Joel Copling on October 23, 2014

"Dear White People" isn't merely a distillation of the current state of racial divide in America. That would be merely one level of director Justin Simien's screenplay, thought it definitely exists. No, here is a film that exists on the far corners of satire but reflects a real-world examination of its aforementioned target. Laughs are had, some of them downright hearty guffaws, but its humor has a somber aftertaste: This is where we are as a nation, and look how absurd. It might suffer from some unintentional self-congratulation as a result of that vitriol (References to popular culture, which will be gotten to in a moment, seem a bit impertinent, for instance, to the overall thesis), but this anger comes from the right place.

"Racism is over in America," says the white, male president of Winchester University (Peter Syvertsen) to his black, subordinate Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert). "The only people thinking about it are, like, Mexicans, probably." This is the ideal and mindset to which Simien is responding with surprising venom. We follow the sons of those school officials. The president's son is Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), whose casual racism is as closeted as his homophobia is outspoken. The Dean's son is Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), whose subservience to his father's wishes extends to winning the election for head of the dormitory building in which he and his peers live and sleep and which has gained respect for two decades that now seems in danger of being undone.

Troy's major competition for the title is Sam White (Tessa Thompson in a truly outstanding), a half-black, half-white, campus-radio personality whose show Troy (whom she used to date before a messy break-up) describes as a sort of modern-day answer to the Black Panthers. She is a fountain of liberal ideals with no problem unsubtly thrusting upon whomever she pleases, and her unexpected win for head of the house gives her even more unswerving power. Coleandra "Coco" Conners (Teyonah Parris) is simply tired of the stereotypes and takes to YouTube in an attempt make this clear and to impress the demanding producer of a reality-television series. In the corner with none to see him is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), who is not only black but also gay.

This is one of the brightest ensembles of the year. Thompson plays so many notes underneath Sam's veil of cynicism (which, she would likely tell you, is actually just keeping it real) that the asides about Kanye West's lyrics, a short film title "The Rebirth of a Nation," and a brief dissertation on what may or may not be urban black stereotyping in 1984's harmless "Gremlins" (a real stretch, this) feel off-topic. Parris is incredible as the ambitious Coco, whose progressive attitude is immediately endearing, while Gallner is something of her polar opposite (not only in skin color, but in attitude toward everything that differs from him) and sells the antagonism without turning it into caricature.

So, yes, "Dear White People" is an epithet of a movie, but that's not the only level on which it is working. There is tenderness to Simien's view of its sometimes ruthlessly cynical characters; each of them has a motivation for the cynicism. Sam's father is in the hospital, and once his condition's stable or critical nature is established, the harsh brick wall can be chipped away at slowly to reveal who resides behind it. Lionel is a ball of insecurities about his station within his own race and sexual orientation. There is more from where this emotional heft comes, and beneath the cynicism lies something just as tender the characters who lie there.

Film Information

Tyler James Williams (Lionel Higgins), Tessa Thompson (Sam White), Kyle Gallner (Kurt Fletcher), Teyonah Parris (Colandrea "Coco" Conners), Brandon P Bell (Troy Fairbanks), Brittany Curran (Sofia Fletcher), Justin Dobies (Gabe), Marque Richardson (Reggie), Malcolm Barrett (Helmut West), Dennis Haysbert (Dean Fairbanks), Peter Syvertsen (President Fletcher), Brandon Alter (George), Katie Gaulke (Annie), Brian James (Martin), Keith Myers (Mitch).

Directed and written by Justin Simien.

Rated R (language, sexual content, drug use).

100 minutes.

Released in select cities on October 17, 2014.