Dear White People
by Ken Carrell
TL;DR – A well-acted but confusing film, Dear White People addresses racial politics in a comedy/drama that misses too many of its marks. Too many parts are dragged out and the dialogue, while often punchy and witty, is at times unclear or out of place. The film does a great job of addressing the issue of race in contemporary America and sending a message while not being 100% clear of what its message really is.
Dear White People is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek jab at the inner workings of racial politics in America by setting the struggle at the fictional Winchester University (unless you really believe that this all took place at the University of Winchester in England…when there’s not a single British person for miles).
There’s an episode of Community where they’re trying to figure out how to design the mascot for Greendale College: The Human Beings. Obviously, there are racial implications here: what color should it be? What features should it have? Etc. During the debate about the design, there’s a poster with a skin color spectrum ranging from “Seal” to “Seal’s teeth.” As Jeff Winger so accurately jested, “not being racist is the new racist.” Where Community took this premise and made it a joke, Dear White People took it and tried to make it a drama…and it didn’t really work.
The story is set up as several storylines “weaved” together (if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll see why that’s funny). Each leading character gets their own plot which laces its way back through the others. The result is too much happening to keep track of and too many different stories to dig deep into any particular one.
Samantha White (I’m betting he just couldn’t resist throwing that last name on someone) (Tessa Thompson) is the lovechild incarnate of bell hooks and Malcolm X. She overtly states at one point that black people can’t be racist because racism is a system working against them (paraphrasing). Unfortunately, radical feminists are often depicted as antagonists in the media and this film doesn’t support shifting that paradigm. Sam is made out to be a relentless attacker of the “system” through her radio show “Dear White People” where she comes on over the PA system and lets loose little quips aimed at, you guessed it, white people. They start funny with things like, “if you listen to Lil’ Wayne, it reminds me how often you say [the N-word] when there are no black people around (paraphrasing). As the movie progresses, they shift from funny to frustrating. Ex: “saying ‘African-American’ is now racist because you’re scared of not being politically correct and I’d rather you say the N-word”… WHAT?!?! I know that it’s supposed to be funny but I found myself getting annoyed as the joke dragged on. With the intertwining of stories, she’s depicted as an antagonist in most of the different plots and by the time we get to her’s, so much of the movie has passed already that I didn’t care anymore. No amount of sob story made me want to root for her at that point.
One of the better plots was Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) who was president/head of his student house, gets voted out of office and has to navigate the waters of going back to being regular Joe Schmo. On top of that, he’s in an even more precarious position since his dad (Dennis Haysbert) is the dean. With his dad trying to appease the president of the university (Peter Syvertsen) by keeping his son in check and trying to quell any dissent from Sam White and her posse, it’s easy to see how this side of things ends up boiling over in a very entertaining way. Throw in Sam White constantly being at odds with the president’s son (Kyle Gallner) and there’s plenty of drama to be had.
To go into all of the details of this story would be an exercise in futility (although it seems I somewhat tried already). The different storylines are well-written, with the only continuity flaws happening on screen (camera-angle-to-camera-angle goof-ups, they’re pretty common if you have the eye to spot them). It only really suffers because there are so many moving parts that it becomes too hard to follow and the somewhat uneven pacing may make audience members stop caring at some point. If Simien was trying to address racial issues in America, he definitely did that. If he was trying to send something more nuanced, it got lost in the constant intermingling of so many storylines. Overall, it’s a good attempt and a nice idea but an execution that gets too many things wrong.