Overview: Tensions come to a head at an Ivy League college where black students struggle to define themselves while confronting institutional racism and their own prejudices. 2014; Roadside Attractions; Rated: R; 100 min.
Who Am I?: Identity is the central issue of Justin Simien’s film. Simien explores a variety of voices and his film is driven by the intelligence of his script and the honest power of the performances. Dear White People is made up of multiple (and eventually intersecting) storylines, each displaying the power of white privilege and its effects on black status. Dear White People never makes saints or villains out of a particular race. Rather, it shows the complexity of racial relationships and the problems that exist on both sides.
Who Am I Talking To?: Simien’s script refuses to speak down to its audience. It’s a film that seems meant for audiences who are already educated about and in favor of the film’s views. Simien’s aim is admirable and problematic. There is a certain exclusivity to the film, not in terms of race, but education. There are times when the film ventures into college lecture territory, offering up too many ideas to fully process while using an academic vocabulary. Part of this is the film’s college setting and that’s understandable. But for a film that is arguably one of the most important black films in recent years, its reach may be somewhat hampered by a certain degree of elitism.
Satire as Weapon: While the film tackles serious issues, it’s not lacking in laughs. It’s encouraging to see a black comedy that doesn’t rely on stereotypes or continue to fund the efforts of Tyler Perry. Simien sheds light on a variety of issues ranging from affirmative action, miscegenation, blackface, and most importantly: the difference between racism and prejudice. The film is balanced with an exploration of overt and subtle racism. While most of these issues are handled with levity (aided by the use of title cards and cutaways), the film never uses humor to deflect honesty. Most of the levity in the film comes from a place of uncomfortable and understandable honesty rather than exaggeration. The film’s climax, which features a frat throwing a party where white students come dressed up as black stereotypes, is disturbingly surreal, and the end credits act as a reminder that the party was inspired by real life events. While we may (and should) laugh at points, the film is perhaps too based in reality to act completely as satire. From a marketing standpoint, a racially-charged film disguised is satire is less likely to anger, but does that make its valid points easier for some to dismiss?
The Call of Conflict: The central characters and their confrontations are observed by the occasional appearance of a black reality show developer who believes that audiences just want to watch blacks and whites in conflict regardless of the outcome. It’s his opinion we’re left with at the end, and it may act as a statement that despite all the film has to say, things will continue on as they have. The racial conflict explored in the film is classic in nature (highlighted by the use of classical music throughout the film). While Dear White People offers a few conclusions it does not attempt to neatly solve all of the storylines. What we’re left with is an idea that, despite the instances of racial equality and understanding that are found, the divide will remain open because people thrive off of racism, prejudices, and the identification of differences because it gives them something to fight for, cementing status and purpose. It creates identity.