What a conflicting film Dear White People is. Intelligent and entirely relevant yet backward and questionably offensive. How to analyse a movie of such depth, that is clearly subjective from one person to another. It’s about racism and contemporary America, but from where I stand it isn’t a picture of just white on black racism, it is bigotry from both sides. If you live in a part of the world that escapes the clutches of modern prejudice, (and as I write this I think to myself ‘Well, there is no side’) then Dear White People might be ever so slightly problematic to digest. Protagonist Sam (Tessa Thompson) proclaims “Black people can’t be racist” and as an audience we can’t help but over-complicate this statement. Is she right? Is she wrong? This is a fictional film after-all, yet the proof of realism is seen so evidently in the snap shots of American college students covered in black paint, posing together at racially themed parties in the closing credits of the film. We all know this isn’t right. Or at least we should. Justin Simien is definitely sure that this behaviour isn’t acceptable but the terrifying question that his film, Dear White People asks is: Do the majority of white middle Americans know the same thing? Worryingly, Simien’s movie says no.
The biggest problem is the division the movie causes. Do you have to constantly be self aware of your race? I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror and thinks I’m white or I’m black. Simien’s film works with a backdrop – Winchester College campus – that focuses on characters who are obsessed with their own ethnicity. The white are rich and socially ignorant, The black are divided between those who want to be part of the in-crowd and those who want to cause political anarchy. So, are these depictions of young people correct? Simien must think so. The film is uneven and characterisation unsurprising but cinematically speaking it gets much better as it goes on. As it begins you are uninterested and slightly bored (for Thompson is scripted a lot of monologues) but as it continues Simien gets to the root of his characters and the film becomes about much more than race in America; Dear White People becomes about the unbiased struggle of young adults. Simien penned and directed the feature which begins as a satirical drama and concludes as a melodramatic romance narrative that sees a happy ending for most. I like happy endings but the whimsical nature of this one is particularly misplaced. How so? Well, the movie is trying to make a fuss for at least 90 minutes of its 108 yet collapses into a picture that believes selling yourself short and forgetting what your cause was altogether is OK.
The response Dear White People has garnered among the online community is one of negativity and (ironically) racism. YouTube videos show vloggers proclaiming their hatred for those of a different ethnicity and sight Simien’s film at the same time. This has all spun from a feature with a message that is unclear and apparently suggesting racist solutions for tired American black people. There are moments of wit in Justin Simien’s feature and there are stand out performances from Kyle Gallner as rich kid Kurt Fletcher and Teyonah Parris as socially conflicted CoCo. There are one or two scenes that see its audience in shock at the race war unfolding before their eyes. But, Dear White People has been interpreted as a film that agrees with a cultural division. That, in itself, is not right.