“Racism is over in America,” says Winchester University’s white president (Peter Syvertsen) to its black dean (Dennis Haysbert). “The only people thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” This might be the only completely untruthful and wholly ignorant statement made in Justin Simien’s debut feature Dear White People, which seems far too true-to-life to be called a satire, even though it’s billed as such. Of course, the movie, which unfolds almost entirely within its fictional campus setting, is contrived in ways to support its microcosmic, pseudo-satirical vibe.
The long-acquainted president and dean, for instance, conveniently reflect racial power struggles that spill over into the lives of their respective sons, rebellious Kurt (Kyle Gallner) and upright Troy (Brandon P. Bell), campus hotshots defined by their aspirations to adopt each other’s racial norms. But even the film’s most extreme line deliveries are electrified with kernels of un-ironic truth. To Sam (Tessa Thompson), the militant black DJ who hosts the hot-button show that gives the film its title, the president scolds, “I think you long for the days when blacks were hanging from trees so you’d have something to complain about,” before dubbing her the school’s most intolerant figure. Sam, meanwhile, in a reactionary radio broadcast, remarks, “People who say ’African-American’ are only too scared to say ’black,’ because they actually want to say ’nigger.’”
Dear White People doesn’t aim to condemn the fools who believe racism in America has ended, but rather open a vast discussion of how the subject of race—and merely identity—in our country has evolved. Bookended by a news-making frat party with a whites-in-blackface theme, and propelled by a narrative concerning Sam’s assault against the school’s “randomization of housing” (the only all-black residence hall, Parker/Armstrong, is on the verge of being diversified), the movie feels monumentally topical. It arrives in the wake of Miley Cyrus coming under attack for appropriating twerking and grills, and Spike Lee netting headlines for a stubborn rant against gentrification, claiming, in so many words, that he’d rather not have his childhood neighborhoods multi-colored. Are the Mileys of the world disrespecting a culture and community by robbing their trends for personal gain, or honoring them by expressing an unyielding desire to emulate those trends? Do people like Lee have a perfectly viable distaste for the “white overhaul” of things like historically black locales, or do they counter-productively stand in the way of intermixed racial progress? These are the sort of double-edged, open-to-interpretation questions Simien seems zealously driven to ask, and best of all, he never presumes to have the answers to any of them.
Like the movie itself, every character is a beautiful swirl of contradictions. When Sam isn’t hosting her show, making shorts like Rebirth of a Nation (a post-Obama repurposing of minstrelsy), or literally writing the book on how to sustain one’s blackness at a white-dominated Ivy League school, she’s bedding Gabe (Justin Dobies), a white TA. When Troy isn’t condoning the multi-racial proposals for Parker/Armstrong, and walking arm-in-arm with his girlfriend, Kurt’s lily-white sister, Sophie (Brittany Curran), he’s hiding out in his bathroom smoking pot, a substance Simien frequently uses as the ultimate signifier of black stereotypes. Colandrea (Teyonah Parris), or Coco for short, rebels against her race, only dating white guys and perpetually straightening her hair, while, at night, dissing white girls on her YouTube channel as part of her goal to achieve celebrity. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an all-seeing misfit who, after constant residence relocation, has become the punching bag of Kurt’s frat house, is so afraid of fellow blacks that he won’t let any of them cut his monstrous fro. Though clearly queer, Lionel responds to the dean’s inquiry about his sexuality with, “I don’t like labels.” To which the dean replies, “You’ve got no categorization—that’s your problem.” Even here, neither man is wrong, and Dear White People revels in the notion that, in our society, labels are as much a necessity as they are a toxin.
Though it feels a bit like an upgrade of John Singleton’s Higher Learning, which, by contrast, seems highly reticent in how it probes sociopolitical questions, the film holds nothing back in presenting Spike Lee as its strongest influence. It opens with a succession of direct-address shots, uses the same approach to incorporate meta indictments of culture (the viewer takes the POV of a box-office attendant when a group of black filmgoers complain that the new Madea is the best they’re offered), and Lee’s name is dropped at least twice. Given the depths he’s willing to plumb, and the boundaries he doesn’t see in regard to social and racial analysis, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Simien might be Lee 2.0—not just the next essential black voice in filmmaking, but a voice curiously, magnanimously attuned to the development of the times. In the Parker/Armstrong dining hall (from which whites are soon expelled when Sam is surprisingly elected head of house), Simien lets Kurt bark his complaints to Sam about affirmative action, and propose the dubiousness of colleges’ diversity-driven enrollment practices, before spinning the tables back in favor of Sam, who claims Kurt’s dad is promoting random housing out of fear that blacks will “congregate and cause trouble on his plantation.” Every character gets a say, and better still, no character is what he or she seems.
There’s a definite sense that Simien, who nurtured this project for years before debuting it at Sundance, is biting off more than he can chew. In introducing a reality-show element, which is partly used to document the eyebrow-raising bash where countless white girls get their Julianne Hough on, the director unleashes a skewering of media and capitalism that feels like its own can of worms. And, without doubt, viewers will feel this film’s big ideas piling on top of each other, in the heavy events that thrust racial quandaries front and center, and in the zippy-academia dialogue that implies Dawson’s Creek was also an inspiration.
But while he’ll need to better editorialize moving forward, this is hair-splitting when compared to the breadth of Simien’s anthropological aptitude. The very fact that he set his film at a university, a place where ideas are meant to flow and bloom, serves as a kind of self-reflexive cushion, letting his own thoughts as an emerging artist disseminate. And through it all, he anchors the ever-sparring emotions of his film to Sam, whom Thompson plays in a star-making performance, displaying in her face the great ache of being the vessel of the tale’s hypocrisies. Turns out Sam has a poignant secret that’s poetically, enigmatically symbolic of the melting pot we live in, and that Dear White People so thrillingly explores. When she finally spills it at film’s end, she seems to feel both exhausted and enlightened. You will too.