An early scene in the film says that in order to make a point about an audience’s flaws, berating them is not the way to do it. The key is to turn the camera on them so that they can see the flaws for themselves. That is exactly the method by which Dear White People delivers its social satire, turning its camera on the so-called college elite to demonstrate that racism isn’t nearly so dead as many folks seem to think. This is accomplished by stepping into the shoes of four black college students, each with a unique and interlocking story that has as much to do with grappling their own identities as it does with navigating the stereotypes and expectations society places on black shoulders.
The first of these students is Sam, a film student who walks the line between being an anarchist revolutionary and getting the world to see her as more than the “angry black woman” stereotype. Next is Toby, her ex-boyfriend obsessed with appealing to a broad demographic for political advancement, often to the detriment of his own interests and loyalty to his black peers. Third is Coco, a woman with naturally refined speech who feels the need to “black it up” so as to garner attention and Youtube hits. And finally, there is Lionel, a gay black student who doesn’t feel at home with either the white gays or the black population, as his identity doesn’t entirely jive with either clique. These characters’ journeys are placed in the context of a campus housing crisis, wholly fabricated by the administration to split up the predominantly black Armstrong-Parker House. Characters fall on various sides of the conflict, and nobody’s position is so rigid as to be dichotomous.
Like most satire, the comedy comes from observation of the absurdity of many of the film’s racially fueled situations, but that absurdity is something that white people should really keep an eye out for. Dear White People is not just a catchy title; the film is quite literally pointing out a list of shitty things white people do because they believe racism is over, and shows it from a black perspective so as to communicate exactly why that particular behavior is so shitty. The film is never mean-spirited or accusatory; it just demonstrates common black experiences, all the while emphasizing that there is no such thing as one defining black experience.
This is the first film from writer-director Justin Simien, and he reminds me a lot of an early Spike Lee. The upset over the poor state of race relations is similar to that seen in Do The Right Thing, and while the film never escalates to the level of full riot (which the film pointedly acknowledges is something the media thinks only black people do), it does vent its frustration with pinpoint accuracy. It’s tempting to label the villains who throw a blackface-themed Halloween party as hyperbolous, until the credits begin to roll and show actual photos of college blackface parties from within the past decade.
In short, Dear White People is precisely the type of film America needs right now. It uses its wit and charm to diffuse any accusatory notions, yet is sharp and cutting in its critique of white society’s reduction of black people to dehumanizing stereotypes. No one film is going to ease the tensions that plague our country, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Have a favorite Spike Lee movie? Think Justin Simien will carry on that great work? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.