Given the film’s already thought provoking title, I’m surprised Dear White People hasn’t gained more traction in the US. The Justin Simien directed film explores what it means to be studying as an African-American amongst a white dominated population. As we can tell via the heightened news coming from the US, the topic of race relations is a strong one. The film has yet to have a UK release date, but I hope it’ll come across the pond soon.
We center of the lives of several African-American students at the Ivy-like Winchester University. There’s Troy, the dean’s son, dating the white daughter of the school’s President, Sophia. Then there’s Lionel, a gay black student who’s picked on by many of his peers, Sam, the arts major who runs the radio show “Dear White People” and Coco, a semi webstar. The film revolves around a few weeks that at the beginning of the film we are told has caused racial tensions to explode on campus and the dean to resign.
Dear White People explores what it means to be black and the many different sides or facets are involved. In film today we oft tend to leave the discussion of race as either an afterthought or entirely segregate minorities in the pigeonholes we create for them. Even though the trailer might not suggest so, Dear White People attempts to do more than that. First off, it’s genuinely hilarious, funny in the way that makes you uncomfortably squirm in your seat whilst still chuckling and succumbing to the jokes. Secondly, irrespective of its racial message, the film also portrays university/college life in a non rosy tinted grounded fashion, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while. The direction itself is smart and snappy, making the film impossible to ignore as you watch it whilst also sending out vibes of Wes Anderson with its title cards, firm colour palette and focus on characters facial expressions, bare and simple.
The phenomenon Dear White People explores is one that many minorities – not just black/African America – can relate to, and by focusing on these aspects as opposed to just those of segregation, is where the film works. The characters themselves don’t have it figured out either. Troy, the good looking perfect kid, smokes weed in private and deep down knows that him and Sophia are no more than pretty mixed-race relationship poster imagery. Even Sam, the main voice of the trailer, who seem self assured on her path much more than the other characters, doesn’t have it all down. These are college kids, and their confusion mirrors our own.
From the beginning, Dear White People is honest about what it is trying to convey, and successfully does so without shoving it down your throat. It is self aware without being preachy and kaleidoscopic without becoming ridiculous. The world Simien creates is incandecent with both negative and positive hopes of the future, which he emphasises with the sharp dialogue. He is backed up by some wonderful performances from his cast: Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams provide well nuanced performances whilst Teyonah Parris grabs unrelentingly from the get go. I hope we see all three of them in more films in the future.
There are moments when Dear White People gets a little convoluted, a more muddled than it need be, but this is compensated by the sincerity with which Simien trying to get his message across. A few of his secondary actors are also not as nearly convincing as the leads, and for this the film looses a little balance in tone, feeling wobbly and uneven to the eye. That being said, this debut offering from Justin Simien is one that I hope gets more viewings: it’s a snappy, smart film that deserves more attention as much for what it is trying to achieve as for what it does. Even though the title might not suggest it, it’s an inclusive film which will have you laughing with the world you are shown on screen. Dear All, go and see it.
(photo credit: athenacinema.com)