Torn from the depths of a history convoluted with animosity, emerges a film conducive towards masses of all shades. Writer and Director Justin Simien asks only one thing of his audience: leave your offences, and obscenities, at the theatre door.
“Dear White People” follows the lives of four college undergrads as they attempt to navigate their way through the confines of their Ivy Leagued purgatory. Freshman Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is unlike the average individual. A spectacled framed, socially awkward, hair to the heavens, Mumford and Sons fan, Lionel is having a hard time assimilating with his classmates; well, that, and he’s also gay. Like a pendulum, Lionel oscillates aimlessly, back forth between the two cultures, neither one being able to withstand his acquiescent touch. A political prodigy, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), has the world, and his father, mounted on his shoulders. Having lost the House election, he now drowns in the shallow waters of his own racial ineptitude.
More than a pretty face, Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris) has spent her entire life debasing a culture ingrained so deeply within her. Donning wigs and plastic nails of every colour, Coco destines herself for stardom in a world where she is undoubtedly, the centre attraction.
Our titular character, undergrad Sam White (Tessa Thompson), is the blended exception. Host of the popular campus radio show, “Dear White People”, from which the film is titled, Sam becomes the anomaly, a hybrid, amongst the two races.
“A byproduct of mixed race, Sam is neither persecuted nor celebrated. She aligns herself with her black counterparts albeit, reprimands her white adversaries for it.”
Thus, race and identity collide more than ever in Simien’s comedic, seemingly dramatic, film. Coco and Troy both struggle to overcome the tribulations set forth by their inherent blackness. In an instant, their desire to defeat the stereotype is thwarted by the film’s antagonist, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner).
For Lionel and Sam congeniality is the task at hand, however simple. His black classmates are bemused by his opulent afro, by his choice in keeping his hair untamed, unkept from social congruity. At the same time, his white peers claim that he is only ‘technically black’ because of their attraction to the same wildness. She chooses to be seen with a black man even though she is in lust with a white one. Race and identity then, for both Lionel and Sam, becomes a double edged sword.
Set in chapters “Dear White People” presents itself in conscious disarray. The film progresses chronologically, though at times the continuity might seem non-sequitur. The solid block title page chapters that chop across the screen every so often reminds viewers that what we are watching is an artist’s rendering; a diegesis simplifying society’s conceptions of race and identity. Yet the insertion of these chapters also dictates that our next trial is upon us, even before we can fully digest the former one. Evidently, these blocks can also become distracting, pulling the viewer out so as not to get too invested into the story and its characters because they, like us, are woefully strung along. Nonetheless, due diligence can be given to Simien’s ability to illusively break the fourth wall.
From the opening scene to various to tracking shots, it appears that characters are sometimes talking directly to the audience, confronting the viewer head on. Moments later, it is revealed that they are talking to another character or in some cases themselves, cinematography, at its finest.
A voluptuous script decorated with marvellous acting renders “Dear White People” a gem amongst its predecessors. Layered with oppressive anecdotes and two punch one liners, “Dear White People” is sure to get your stomach churning, and yearning, for more.