Dear White People is an invigorating film, a sharp campus comedy that’s a powerful work of cultural observation and critique. With his debut feature, writer-director Justin Simien proves himself a fresh and vital new voice. The film understands the huge rush of intellectual sparring, the stimulation of smart talk and intellectual experimentation. A clever dissection of identity politics, it is pointed and complicated, as cool, empathetic, and impassioned as it is dryly funny. Set on a fictional Ivy League campus, it’s an unsparing look at campus politics and race relations, but creates such a wonderful cast of original characters that it’s also a sweet character study about people simply trying to assert their race, gender, sexuality, and class and finding themselves tied up in ideological knots, feeling outside pressure to conform to their stereotypes.
We meet several students whose plotlines crisscross throughout the course of the film, each representing a fascinating, vibrant, and thrillingly contradictory collection of viewpoints. It’s smartly constructed so that they’re characters first, their ideas second, but one is inextricable from the other. There’s the impassioned black student activist (Tessa Thompson) who writes tracts, makes student films (her “Rebirth of a Nation,” for example), holds demonstrations, and hosts a campus radio show called “Dear White People.” It’s filled with barbs like, “Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised.” Her secret white boyfriend (Justin Dobies) tells her she should “hold up a mirror, not drop an ideological piano” on her audience. Her supporters at the black student union (led by Marque Richardson) agitate for her to push their agenda forward. Other black students, like an econ major and striving reality show aspirant (Teyonah Parris), call her “blacker-than-thou” and a “bougie Lisa Bonet wannabe.”
A more neutral party is the aimless gay sophomore (Tyler James Williams) whose afro and skin color get him a job at the school newspaper, since they all feel too white to write about this controversy. Still others, like the handsome president (Brandon P. Bell) of the historically all-black dorm about to be gutted by a “housing randomization act,” who happens to be son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert), doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. He starts to feel the activist heat when she decides to take his place. The film’s perceptive in its creation of a variety of roles for black actors, speaking from a multiplicity of experiences and backgrounds.
But this is also a movie about white people. The black student activists, but especially the radio show, annoy the white frat bros (led by Kyle Gallner) who think the hardest thing to be in American society is an educated white man. The head bro is the son of the college’s president (Peter Syvertsen) who is somehow sure racism is over, not knowing that his son’s frat party is poised to be flagrantly racist, complete with white students in blackface. They think meaning it as a joke makes it somehow okay. We sit with them and understand their perspective, even though the conclusions they draw are deeply flawed. A prologue showed us news coverage of said party before flashing back to the beginning of the fall semester, so we know it’s happening. The film is clever in slowly teasing out the campus culture that allows it to bubble up in the first place.
While that’s a lot of characters and subplots to juggle and a great thorny tangle of modern identity, Simien keeps the ensemble storylines moving along. He cares about his characters, making sure none become mere punchline, or are artificially weakened to make a political point. It’s a comedy, more of situation and recognition than snap, crackle, pop. But the dialogue is written and performed with a heightened crackling intelligence. And it never feels like Simien has them reading passages from a doctoral thesis. It’s a film about real people dealing with how they define themselves and how others define them, struggling to perform their identities as they live, love, and argue in the forge of identity that college can be.
And that’s what makes conversations about societal expectations, stereotypes, cultural appropriation, “ironic” racism, and code switching all the more powerful. Where else but college do you have the freedom to talk about these ideas and live them at the same time? It’s an authentically collegiate experience, with kids grappling with the big issues while living out a microcosm of the world at large. Some of them want to hold court and get in philosophical debates in the cafeteria. Others just want to study, or hook up, or smoke weed.
This is a fun ensemble comedy with characters I cared about, every major role expertly inhabited by a well-cast performer. It also happens to be one of the most politically vital works of pop filmmaking in quite some time. It takes a long, hard look at the variety of ways we interact with a variety of identities, spotting prejudiced aggressions big and small, in the context of a funny, romantic, sometimes moving entertainment. It’s not often a movie comes along that’s so hugely satisfying and so intoxicatingly intelligent.
Simien is a welcome new voice, using his talents to create one of the smartest, liveliest films of the year. He's a promising first-time director, excited to be playing with technique, with slow zooms, chapter headings, and voice over for emphasis and structure. Perhaps most effective is the way he takes certain confrontations – a conversation between the president and the dean, say – that could be filmed in a simple two shot and instead cuts back and forth between characters speaking in profile towards each other. This emphasizes the disjunction, how quickly honest discussion of race becomes pointless. They’re trapped in their own boxes, talking past each other.
Dear White People is about the hard work of breaking down those boxes, finding barriers where they usually can’t be seen, and especially as people run into differences between the way they want to be seen and how others see them. Identity is more than a collection of signifiers and affectations, no matter how convenient it is for media, corporations, institutions, friends and neighbors to reduce you to them. Here's a movie that says it's okay to love Spike Lee and Taylor Swift. (Whew.) Simien writes wonderfully complicated characters in a film that gives them space to be themselves, to argue and grow. It doesn’t solve problems or wallow in them, but serves them up in the context of a story well told. It’s a powerful, nuanced work of cultural critique that’s also a fun time at the movies.