Writer-director Justin Simien’s “satire about being a black face in a white place” (so reads the film’s subtitle) follows four black students during fall semester at the fictional Winchester University. Tessa Thompson plays Samantha “Sam” White, the fist-in-the-air activist. Her campus radio show, Dear White People, schools Winchester’s white student body: “Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count.” She over-enunciates and modulates her voice better than a Southern Baptist preacher, and her fans are more than ready to hear her good word.
Kyle Gallner plays Troy Fairbanks, the Man to Samantha’s activist, a campus politician following in his father’s Dean of Students footsteps, the Uncle Tom dating the daughter of Winchester’s white president. Tyler James Williams, whom I immediately recognized from Chris Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris, plays Lionel, the freshman nobody who doesn’t fit in anywhere. And, finally, Teyonah Parris is Coco Conners, Sam’s wig-wearing foil who aspires to reality TV fame while donning wigs fit enough for any Real Housewife on Bravo.
Simien’s plot centers around a student debate over segregated campus housing and dining; and, as tensions rise, hinges on an “African-American themed Halloween party” hosted by white students (though the idea may or may not have come from black students). It’s a soiree, chock full of “purple drank,” gold chains, gold teeth, plastic guns held ghetto sideways. Some students call it free speech; others call it racism.
Simien isn’t the first to take on the racism and racial politics of a college campus in an effort to showcase the problems of our country as a whole. But his synecdoche is way more successful than Spike Lee’s School Daze or John Singleton’s Higher Learning. For a satire to work, it’s got to have sarcasm and scorn, humor and finger-pointing. School Daze, with its scenes of black students calling each other jigaboo, was preachy, as most Spike Lee films are. Higher Learning spent so much of its time explicitly highlighting the differences between black and white students, it turned into a cartoon. If black students were on the screen, rap music was playing and a poster of Africa hung in the background. If the scene was about white kids, it sounded like Lollapalooza or Lilith Fair. And there was a keg.
Simien doesn’t manipulate the music or scenery in this way. With the exception of the rap-filled Halloween party, he uses only classical music to score the film: Tchaikovsky’s “Danses de petites cygnes” from Swan Lake, Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and “La Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. The campus isn’t boxy classrooms and tiny dorm rooms: it’s all pillars and wide staircases, gardens and domes. Everything behind the characters looks kind of magical, making the stereotypes that the characters represent even more real.
And there’s real humor here, laugh out loud humor, unlike Simien’s pedantic predecessors.
Simien pulls the fun out from underneath us as soon as the Halloween party starts, and he leaves us, for several minutes, on reality’s cold, bare floor. Watching the white kids walk around in monkey masks, eating watermelon, and Coco, in her blonde wig, partying right along with them, made me nauseous.
Dear White People challenges all of us to question the faces we wear, whether we’re black like Sam, who seems to be an activist in part to reconcile her confusion about her own racial identity, or white like any of the Halloween partygoers who seem so damn happy to get out of their own skin to play another race for a night, or a just blank, open-mouthed stare of ignorance. Lionsgate’s decision to release the film nationwide on the weekend before Halloween was genius. So many of us are sitting around this week, thinking about what race/ethnicity/culture/gender/socioeconomic status/etc. we can appropriate for a cute costume. We may not be thinking about it, consciously, in those terms, but that’s what many of us, including me, will do on Friday. Pretending. Assuming. What better time than this for Simien to point out the masks we choose to wear and the masks we wear so often we’d have to have them surgically-removed to take them off?
Though he wobbles a bit with the ending when he, understandably, looks for some kind of resolution — zooming in on Sam holding hands with her white boyfriend in public for the first time — he remembers his purpose when the credits roll. He cuts in with images of racist parties that have taken place all over the country: University of Florida, Dartmouth, University of Southern Mississippi, Penn State, University of California, San Diego.
It’s a fitting close. No “kind regards,” no “all best.” It’s not the moral of the story, like Singleton’s “Unlearn” on the screen in big, black letters, at the end of Higher Learning. It is the story. And we should take a cue from Simien and tell it.