Dear White People, Justin Simien’s provocative film about race relations at a fictional Ivy League University, is at its best when it follows its own advice. When Colandrea “Coco” Conners, an aspiring TV actress asks a reality show producer about why he’s not interested in casting her, he tells her that she needs to be more confrontational. A girl from the south side of Chicago, she goes home and takes his advice, recording a Youtube video where she calls out white people for their subtle, and not so subtle racism. Dear White People, which has a slow, sometimes confused first half, picks up speed when Coco’s white classmates take off their passive aggressive liberal masks, put on their sheets, and let it all hang out. The final scenes, which take place at a “black face” party in white residence house, are heavy handed, yet surprisingly powerful.
If Dear White People has a weakness it’s the framing. Simien wrote the script partly as an homage to Spike Lee’s School Daze, a film about class conflict between black people at a traditionally black university in the south. The concept doesn’t scale. Even though Dear White People was filmed on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Winchester University feels too small, too patriarchal, too intimate, too evenly divided between black and white students to be credible as one of the Ivys. That mutes the impact of the racism and social isolation we are told Winchester’s students feel. That both the Dean of Students and the University President have sons at Winchester can, at times, make the conflict between its black and white students feel more like a long running family quarrel than any real attempt to dramatize the problem of racism at a major American university.
That being said, Dear White People’s excellent cast let’s Justin Simien the director flesh out characters that Justin Simiem the writer put in a straightjacket. Samantha White, Tessa Thompson, hosts a radio show called “Dear White People,” a confrontational program where she mocks white liberals for their pretensions to being above and beyond the issue of race. “Dear white people,” she says. “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.” Samantha, however, is also sleeping with a white graduate student named Gabe, for whom she dumped big man on campus Troy Fairbanks, the son of the black Dean of Students. Sam’s opposite and sometime foil is the above mentioned Colandrea “Coco” Conners. Coco is no black militant. On the contrary, she straightens, then later dyes her hair blond. Unlike Samantha, she doesn’t want to live in the all black Armstrong Parker. She didn’t work her way into an Ivy League University to limit her interactions to black people. That Coco is presented as a sympathetic three-dimensional character and not just a dupe testifies to the sophistication of Simien’s writing.There are times when we actually agree with Coco Conners and Troy Fairbanks. There are times when Samantha comes off like a naive teenager who’s bitten off more than she can chew, and the 31 year old Tessa Thompson, who we last saw as Diane Nash in the film Selma, is perfectly credible as a 21-year-old undergraduate, revealing a layer of vulnerability underneath the mask of the aggressive black militant.
Rounding out the cast is Tyler James Williams, who plays Lionel Higgins, a nerdy would-be writer with a huge afro, the kind that clueless white people like to stick their fingers into. Lionel Higgins is a gay student who’s as critical of black homophobia as he is of white racism, even though the only time he gets gay baited it’s by the closest thing Dear White People has to a villain. That villain, Kurt, the son of the University President, is a bit of a cartoon character. Oddly enough, you leave the film wishing he would be even more of a cartoon characters. Gabe, Samatha’s boyfriend and Sofia, Troy’s clueless if basically sympathetic white girlfriend, remind me a bit of Vito, Sal’s good son in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Nobody remembers him. Everybody remembers Pino, the sneering racist played by John Turturro. If you’re going to make an provocative, in your face movie about racism, there’s no need to hold back when it comes to writing your villains. Just cast a good actor in the role and let him have fun being the bad guy. Kyle Gallner, who plays Kurt, is no John Turturro, but he does manage to express a certain arrogance and a barely suppressed hostility towards black people. He’s not the kind of actor I’ll go out of my way to see, but he works.
Winchester’s white students, interestingly enough, are decidedly more Italian and Jewish in appearance than WASP, almost certainly the influence of Spike Lee, who almost always cast great Italian American actors like Danny Aiello as his representative white antagonists. What’s more, one of Do the Right Things best scenes, where Mookie Lee confronts the racist Pino on why he hates black people but worships Prince and Michael Jordan — “they’re niggers but they ain’t niggers” Pino responds — echos throughout Dear White People. Samantha, for example, is a fan of Taylor Swift, something she tries to hide. The more racist white people are, Simiens suggest, the more they want to be black. It is in fact Coco Conners, not Samantha, who best understands what motivates racists. “They get suntans. They get lip implants,” she says. “They may hate us but they want to be us.” If you watch Dear White People make sure to watch it right through the credits. As a white person, and I hope as a white person, “Dear White People” is addressing me. As I watched the film’s strongest scenes, the “black face” party staged by Kurt, as I observed the fun, games, and drunken buffoonery transformed into a red masque of racist spiritual death, I found myself wondering how common it was. Do sophisticated Ivy League students really stage black face parties? I was skeptical. Perhaps Simien was taking one or two incidents and blowing them up out of proportion. Then the credits rolled, and I had my answer. Simiens had taken almost every frame of his own black face party directly from newspaper photographs of real black face parties.
“Dear white people,” Samantha had told Sophia, “this just in: Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”
The joke was on me. My own skepticism about the black face party in the movie proved I’m not as far above people like Kurt as I like to think I am. After all, I had already seen most of the photos of the black face parties he ran in the credits on social media. Why hadn’t I recognized them in the film? Why had my own snobbery prevented me from realizing that far from being less racist than the American people as a whole, white students at Ivy League universities are quite possibly more racist? I realized that, like Sophia, I’m probably just another clueless white liberal.