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Sundance Review: 'Dear White People' (A Cinematic Answer To The Year Of The "Race-Themed" Film)

Shadow and Act By Zeba Blay | Shadow and Act January 18, 2014 at 11:48PM

Sundance Review: 'Dear White People' (A Cinematic Answer To The Year Of The "Race-Themed" Film)
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"Dear White People" still
"Dear White People" still

In a sense, Dear White People is a sort of cinematic answer to everything that was 2013. Yes, 2013, the year of so-called “race-themed” films. The year which brought us a veritable smorgasbord of out-and-out racism: from the Trayvon Martin verdict, to the Italian 12 Years A Slave poster, to Miley Cyrus, to stop-and-frisk, to the white girl in Australia who threw an “African-themed” birthday party, complete with blackface and grass skirts. 


And in the midst of all that was a three-minute concept trailer with a provocative title: Dear White People. The trailer was a brief, but brilliant glimpse into the vision of writer-director Justin Simien that seemed to speak to facets of the black experience so rarely (if ever) seen on screen. With its predominantly black, blipstery-looking cast juxtaposed against the setting of a white Ivy League university, the trailer presented images and dialogue (“Dear White People, the amount of black friends to not seem racist has been raised to two”) that was refreshingly, excitingly different and new. Promising to follow in the tradition of beloved college movies like School Daze and Animal House, the trailer got people interested enough to repost and reshare it all over the blogosphere, to contribute to a successful Indiegogo campaign and, eventually, get the finished film all the way to Sundance. 

But we all know the traps that come along with really great trailers, don’t we? They have the tendency to promise one thing and deliver something different altogether. Hype, perhaps, doesn’t help. The condensed energy and genuine good will of thousands and thousands of people willing a movie to be good, wishing and hoping and praying so much that the final product is not even half as decent as what we’d all been crossing our fingers for. 

Well, rest easy. Dear White People, despite a few tweaks and changes from its original trailer (most notably a new lead actress, the endearing Tessa Thompson), the movie isn’t just decent - it’s incredibly entertaining. There are a lot of moving parts that contribute to what ultimately makes the movie work. These include the movie’s distinct visual language, a great soundtrack, and a stellar ensemble featuring Teyonah Parris (proving that she is horribly underused on Mad Men), Brandon P Bell, and Tyler James Williams. 

The crowning jewel of this film is the writing, though. It distills what it’s like to be black in a world where most white people believe that as long as slavery is over and water fountains aren’t segregated, racism and the daily struggles that go along with it does not exist. It’s brilliant, then, to set the film in the Ivy League, a place that in a way acts as a sort microcosm of the world that most people of color navigate through anyway: a world where privileged white folk reign and black people are made to feel like they have to bite their tongues if a white person suddenly touches their hair without permission, or arguing that they can’t be racist because they “don’t see color,” when you, in fact, have to see it everyday. 

The set up is simple: Sam (Thompson) is a film student and self-professed black activist at the fictional Winchester University, where she’s president of the BSU and hosts a radio show called ‘Dear White People,’ dropping science like, “Dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” While Sam takes up the cause to stop Winchester’s decision to get rid of a historic house for black students on campus, blue-contact and Brazilian Remy weave wearing CoCo (Parris) longs to get in with the old money, Troy (Bell) attempts to maintain the facade of the Perfect Non-Threatening Black Man, and Lionel (Williams) tries to navigate being the gay loner who is “too white for the black kids, and not black enough for the white kids”. Simien does a nearly seamless job of juggling the several subplots of the main characters, culminating with an explosion of a final act that involves the campus white elite throwing a ‘Hip-Hop’ themed costume party that encapsulates the racial problems that plague the University despite the administration’s desire to act like race is a non-issue. 

This is a political film, but it would do it a disservice to slap it with something like “race-themed” and send it on its way. Because with all its nuance, Dear White People is funny. Like, really funny. And for the black viewer, a cathartic kind of funny. Some of the most amusing moments are the ones that catch the racial micro-aggressions of white people and hold them up to the light - comments like, “But you’re only technically black!” But what’s brilliant here is that the movie, while it does call white people out, is not merely an angry indictment on them, but a satire that breaks down all the archetypes, all the stereotypes that we as black people have about each other: the overcompensating militant “lightskint” girl, the Angry Black Man, the “But I’m not like other black people” type. 

With its vividly drawn world and characters, the movie doesn’t presume to encompass the entirety of what it means to be black, but it does give one of the most entertaining and honest depictions of black life in a so-called “white” world in years.There are things in this film that will make some people, both white and black, squirm. Probably because they’re true. And if Dear White People is an answer to 2013, an answer to the construct of racism as a whole, that answer might be that there is no real answer to the absurdity of racism. But there are experiences, and perhaps the most significant thing about Dear White People is that, coming out of the year that it did, these particular experiences have not been represented at all.


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

This article is related to: Justin Simien, Tessa Thompson


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