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

by Zeba Blay
January 18, 2014 11:48 PM
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"Dear White People"

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.
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  • jerry | February 19, 2014 4:23 PMReply

    Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic, but black people love keeping the ball rolling about white people and history. What part of how he identifies himself as hispanic is it that black people are to dumb to understand? Stfu already. I don't think it was about race at all.

  • MG | January 21, 2014 4:30 PMReply

    While the title made me read this article.. I am disappointed.. In my humble and respectful opinion..the topic and all of the response to this film portrays black people as if they are the only ones that are treated in a racist manner or if one has white skin.. they are the "opposition." It's just not that simple. Any person, no matter what color has the possibility of being treated badly because of the color of their skin. Not fair.. not moral..but it happens. I tried to cash a check at a grocery store in Harlem years ago to use for Christmas (they also cashed checks here and I had lost my atm card.) The store owner told me in front of a dozen customers.. he had to save that money for his "own" people and went further to make it known that I didn't have the right color skin to shop at his store. If this had happened in midtown and it was a black person in a "white" store.. it would have been catastrophe! But when it happened to me..that's not news.. because I'm white.. I know this is a long story .. but white people have had their share of feeling racism towards them too..Are all people racist? saying "Dear White People".. hey.. don't put your stereotypical label on me...It's narrow minded and isn't it just as racist? I feel like movies and articles such as tell a viewpoint.. but it's not the whole spectrum of the story.. further to that.. I feel like media only strives to separate and not bring people together..Ask yourself.. which does this movie do?

  • MG | January 27, 2014 2:03 PM

    Instead of black and white.. let's say.. any human being mistreated is unacceptable. But your condescending sarcasm shows that you pick sides and don't see the wrong in anyone being treated unfairly.

  • TC | January 22, 2014 3:12 PM

    MG - I agree, why don't you go out there and make "Dear Black People" and show the world the great oppression you and other white people have experienced. I mean, could you imagine a black person being denied service at white store? Of course not! Your humiliation at the hands of a Harlem store clerk would make for a riveting, thought provoking cinematic masterpiece.

  • MT | January 20, 2014 8:31 PMReply

    This is one of the FEW positive reviews I've read of the film. Word out of Sundance, at least in some quarters, is that it's stunningly disappointing.

  • LimeLight | March 19, 2014 10:18 PM

    I've heard nothing but so-so reviews as well. Mostly that it's the buzz that social media has created that's the best thing about the film. Glad it got distribution but I'll be late for it.

  • William Spiritdancer | January 19, 2014 11:17 PMReply

    Would have been nice to include the trailer.

  • dylan | January 28, 2014 11:25 AM

    There is no trailer yet, that'll get produced by the distributor when it gets picked up, though it's likely you can find the original Indiegogo trailer still online somewhere.

  • bougiehippie | January 19, 2014 10:39 PMReply

    Jaded but funny, witty but slighted by it's own backwards intentions

  • umadfawha | January 19, 2014 10:45 PM

    Dont be shillin.

  • Nfinite Soul | January 19, 2014 1:59 PMReply

    Your writing is immpeccable, I enjoyed the article and cannot wait to see the film. We should stay in touch. We are both in the same field of business. I am @Nfinitesoul on Twitter.

  • 2014 The year of the human | January 19, 2014 12:48 PMReply

    Race is not just a two-sided issue, and when it is portrayed as such it is being used as division. Trayvon Martin is a perfect example of whites and blacks being played against each other. And it's also a perfect example of why "the year of the race movies" is bunk. Why was it even a white/black issue? Zimmerman was hispanic. The media which fraudulently reported things to stoke black anger is predominantly white. There's a lot of room to come together that is lost with the media stoking hysteria on both sides.

  • dylan | January 28, 2014 11:28 AM

    Zimmerman didn't get off because he was white (or hispanic) he got off because Martin was black. The race issue still holds.

  • Drkmttr | January 20, 2014 1:51 PM

    It really is a two-sided issue when you realize that race is a power game based in white supremacy. Two sides: the white people racial structures privilege and those receiving the runoff (dubious thought it may be) from that privilege + the rest of us. You're right that race is and has historically been used to divide people, but that division always always benefits the maintenance of white supremacy. That's what happened in the Zimmerman case. Regardless of how you identify Zimmerman in terms of race or ethnicity (probably checks "Hispanic white" on government docs), the overall effect was the perpetuation of racist stereotypes about young black men and the legal categorization of Martin's death as inconsequential and his own fault. White supremacist structure wins, the rest of us lose.

  • Blair | January 20, 2014 11:41 AM

    Everyone was under the impression that he was white.

  • Zach | January 20, 2014 11:40 AM

    Yes, Zimmerman was hispanic. However, due to his pigmentation he could easily pass as a white man—hence his white privilege. Any light-skinned African-American will tell you that their dark-skinned counterparts put up with a lot more racism and discrimination than they do and in this case, it was no different. Because Zimmerman was light-skinned, most people assumed he was white, until it was revealed that he was Hispanic. I believe it was a black and white issue, because he was light-skinned.

  • QB | January 19, 2014 4:08 PM

    Hispanic is not a race, but many of them have Native blood.. essentially a mix between Native South Americans and the Spaniards that conquered them. Have you seen how brown his Mom is? If Zimmerman is White, then so is Obama.

  • Melissa | January 19, 2014 2:11 PM

    "Zimmerman was hispanic"

    Hispanic is not considered a race. So technically he is White.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 19, 2014 11:16 AMReply

    "But you're only technically black." Man, that's my jam! LMBAO

    I've had to tell white people often -- after they've told me something to that effect -- "Do you not realize that when you tell my I'm not *really* black to you that you're saying, in essence, that blackness is a negative construct? To you, 'black' means saggy pants, baby-mamas, a two-toned wave cap, welfare hustling, a criminal record and a loose grasp of the Queen's English."

    I think that speaks to how we are still living in anything but a post-racial country where "people are just people" as so many whites like to point out on social media to disassociate themselves from anything racially explosive (the Zimmerman trial, for instance).

    I think the cycle is perpetuated less by base hatred than by assumed ignorance. I won't blame a white person for slavery, but I do need them to know about it in-depth, since, y'know, it's part of American History (but gets one chapter in the books). And our culture -- our music, our style, our self-expression -- can't be thought bogus when it's been so often appropriated by and packaged for a white audience (lookin' at you, Elvis).

    I hope this film develops a cult following and eventually finds its way to every white person in America -- or every non-black, for that matter. We are not one monolithic people -- except when it comes to voting for the brotha -- and are just as varied as whites. Not all Caucasians are snobby, blue-blooded WASPs or illiterate hooch-swilling hicks. All we demand is the same right of variation, and respect.

  • deecreative | January 19, 2014 2:43 AMReply

    I hope they don't try to shop this for movie theaters, it's the 21st century put it out on VOD! With all the online support they got, people will pay to see this! Just not run to the movie theaters but they have fans already.

  • Hera | January 19, 2014 1:34 AMReply

    Great review! I can't wait to see this.

  • saadiyah | January 19, 2014 12:57 AMReply

    I'm excited to see this now!

  • Burp | January 19, 2014 12:39 AMReply

    you continually knock them out the park like Ken Griffey. Great Great review once again. Thanks

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