Festivals Reviews TV & Film

AFF 2014: “Dear White People”: Finally A Film For Our Generation

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Photo from flicksandbits.com

“Dear White People” is a game changer. The comedy, directed by Justin Simien, centers around four black college students attending a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) as they deal with the racism they face at the hands of the white students and faculty. The film deals head on with many topics that are often not addressed in film like white privilege, cultural appropriation, respectability politics and systematic racism. After gaining attention through a phenomenal concept trailer that went viral, the film was funded by fans through Indiegogo and went on to premiere at Sundance and win a Special Jury Prize. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to a sold-out showing of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse that featured a Q&A with Simien.

Story by Dana Summers

The movie centers around Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a film student and creator of the radio show “Dear White People” that is stirring up controversy and resentment from white students for calling them out on their racist behaviors like touching black people’s hair because it looks exotic or only dating a black person to piss of their parents. Her sudden ascent to president of Armstrong Parker House, the historically black resident hall on campus, usurping Troy Thompson (Brandon P Bell) – the perfect student who is pressured by his father to be “twice as good” and to “be better than what they think you are” when he truly doesn’t aspire to be as perfect as a Cosby – from his throne. Samantha quickly becomes the face of black radicalism on campus, sparking envy from Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), who lives and breathes the term New Black, attempting to transcend race by assimilating with white students and gaining attention from Lionel Higgins, a queer black student and aspiring journalist who is enlisted by the college’s biggest newspaper to follow the increasing tensions between black and white students on campus.

This film has laughs, sincere moments and soul-crushing scenes. The party scene which is briefly shown in the trailer is the climax and the most painful scene to watch due to the mockery and dehumanization of black people by white college students, something that often happens on real college campuses nationwide. In its more lighthearted moments, the film lands almost every joke and allows each character to show off their unique quirks.

I would also like to take a moment to applaud Simien, a queer black man himself, for including a rare representation of a queer black character who is not just there for laughs or to support the main character, but rather as one of the main protagonists who struggles to find a place to belong and eventually finds his voice. The face of LBGTQA+ community in the media is often a white cismale, and it is just fantastic to see a queer person of color who has agency and a ton of screentime.

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Photo from filmguide.sundance.org

During the Q&A, Simien emphasized that this film is a reflection of his own life experiences. He grew up being hyperaware of his race as a child due to his mother being a very light-skinned Creole who people often thought wasn’t his actual mother. He also was from a black neighborhood, but he attended a magnet art school in a mostly white neighborhood, where he made the arts his life’s ambition. He attended film school in Chapman where he encountered white people who had never even talked to black person face to face until they went to college. It was at Chapman where the ideas that would eventually become “Dear White People” developed. “Dear White People” originates from Simien wanting to create a representation of himself since he didn’t see one and his aspiration to revive the Black Art House film genre that was produced films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Boyz in the Hood” in the late 80’s and early 90s. Since he was able to make his dream a reality, Simien offered some advice to young black filmmakers by telling them to not “be discouraged if you don’t see yourself in the culture. It’s your job to put yourself there.”

After watching this film I came to a realization that “Dear White People” is the first time I’ve seen someone who looked like me on the big screen, ever. There is little that a black girl with natural hair and a tumblr can relate to in the media nowadays outside of Internet comedies like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. It’s rare for me to see a film that reflects what my generation deals with like “Dear White People” or the critically acclaimed but excluded from all the awards “Fruitvale Station” because most black movies are either historical or center around older, already-established actors like Kevin Hart, Will Smith, etc. I’ve never seen a film about young black students at a PWI or even young black adults who are dealing with racism in different ways than their parents and grandparents.

Is “Dear White People” perfect? Hell no. There are criticisms of the films use of the Tragic Mulatto trope and plot structure issues. However, there is no denying that this film is a landmark film that will hopefully lead to investors and studios putting more faith into young black filmmakers so that more films like “Dear White People” can grace the big screen instead of never breaking out of the festival circuit. Do yourself a favor and go see this movie.

“Dear White People” is currently playing nationwide. You can check out the trailer here.

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