Dear White People
Director: Justin Simien
Writer: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell, Brittany Curran, Dennis Haysbert,
Seen on: 15.9.2016
Biracial Samantha (Tessa Thompson) hosts a popular radio show on her campus where she tackles racial issues, “Dear White People”. After she wins the election for head of her House, the black only residence on campus, beating out her ex Try (Brandon P Bell), Sam gets a bigger platform for her outspoken activism and things get considerably more heated. The white students, in particular the frat led by Kurt (Kyle Gallner), want to push back by hosting a blackface party and asking Lionel (Tylor James Williams) to investigate undercover in Sam’s House. Meanwhile, Coco (Teyonah Parris) is trying to land a spot on a reality TV show, but they seem more interested in Sam and the tensions surrounding her.
Dear White People started off a bit weird for me, but once the film and I found our groove together and the story really starts, it is an enjoyable, funny film with a very serious core, presenting a perspective that is much too rare in mainstream entertainment.
I’m not exactly sure who the film wants to address – the eponymous White People or rather if it’s a film made by black people and for black people. It may be simply both, but that means that sometimes the film plainly explains points that most black people will probably be all too familiar with, while including some more “obscure” things that will go over the head of white people who had the luxury not to pay attention to racial issues.
Most of the time, though, it probably errs on the side of explaining even the seemingly obvious things, making it an excellent, well-observed primer and entry point for beginners in race studies (just to make my own position explicit here: I’m a white European who tries to engage with issues of racism and with intersectional feminism in particular, but I’m no “race expert”).
Apart from the educational aspect regarding the issues at the film’s heart, the film strongest suit is certainly its cast, led by the wonderful Tessa Thompson in a fast-firing, smart role. They make the dialogue, even when it’s slightly and full of exposition, feel real and have the right comedic timing to pull most of it off.
And yet, the film didn’t entirely manage to convince me. It may be the muddled target audience. It may be the fact that there were way too little women in it (and the relationship between the two women who get the most focus is terse and competitive). It may be my own internalized bias (I hope it’s not, it doesn’t feel like it is, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not getting tripped up here). It may be something else entirely. But in any case, as entertaining and smart as it is, it just doesn’t take off as well as it could have.