One of the bigger stories at Sundance this year was the premiere of newcomer Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People. It was pretty well-received, enough so to earn Simien a new director prize. The film, which tackles sensitive race issues in a college setting, can now be seen in theaters, and it is definitely worth a watch.
The film is an ensemble, following the trials of four black students in an Ivy League-esque institution. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a proud yiung woman who fights for the well-being of herself and the other black students at Winchester. She finds herself at odds with her ex-boyfriend, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), who is more willing to excuse insensitivity in order to preserve what he perceives as racial harmony. Coco (Teyonah Parris) disagrees with them both, ready and willing to ignore her heritage in itser to fit in. At least they seem to have a grasp of who they are as people – young Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) sees himself as a total outcast as a gay black man.
Maybe Lionel has the right idea, however. He states he doesn’t care for labels, but in the first half of the film Sam matter-of-factly lays out the three “types” of black people: “One Hundreds” (like Sam) are supposedly true to their black identities no matter what, while “Ooftas” (like Troy) change they way they behave in order to impress those around them, not unlike “Nosejobs” (like Coco) who try to cover up all evidence of their background do the whites around them feel comfortable.
This is the kind of broad categorization that feels totally reductive and unnecessary, and it lends to the sense of artificiality that permeates the beginning of the movie. In a lot of ways it feels like one of Wes Anderson’s intricate diorama movies, with straight-on camera angles and adorable chapter breaks. Eventually it becomes clear that this is intentional on Simien’s part, as the characters realize that they don’t fit into categories as well as they thought they did. Dear White People is not so much about finding your pre-existing “Black Identity;” it’s about finding your identity as a black person.
That’s a bold statement for such a white guy to make. It’s very true: I cannot speak in any way to the black experience in America. Hell, I can’t speak to the black experience in any country. Luckily Simien is able to inject a lot of the emotion and frustration that comes with being a young black man into his film. He gets his point across well, even in the tiny moments of passive racism such as white admiration of black hair, or the commandeering of specifically black language by other cultures. The movie effectively makes you think about racial dynamics in your own life.
Dear White People’s most successful aspect is the issues that it raises, but Simien bites of a little more than he can chew with the film. There are dozens of characters with dozens of problems at Winchester, and he tries to address each and every one of them. This is most obvious in Lionel’s storyline, where his identity as a gay man is never adequately covered because there just isn’t enough time. This problem is indicative of a young filmmaker with a lot to say, but without the skills to say all of it just yet.
This issue is also present in Simien’s script, which lacks any real character development outside of the core four performances. These supporting characters are all very thin, with the main trait for every white character (save one) being “extremely racist.”
But Dear White People isn’t about it’s white characters. It may be for them, but it’s also for black people. And Asians. And Latinos. The themes of Dear White People, while clumsily handled, have something to say to any viewer. And that makes it worth your time.