“Dear White People” could not be any more topical, especially for Occidental students—it addresses college diversity issues with a dark sense of humor. Writer/director Justin Simien’s incisive, satirical script rises above some technical difficulties to illuminate complex characters and poignant dialogue. With his first feature film, Simien manages to weave myriad racial issues into an accessible, engaging story.
The film revolves around four black students at the fictional Winchester University—a predominantly white Ivy League college—in the days leading up to a blackface party hosted by the all-white staff of the school’s comedy magazine, Pastiche.
There is a lot to digest: “Dear White People” touches on topics like micro-aggression, white privilege, fetishization and the marginalization of people of color in the American media and educational system. The film ultimately poses one central question: Can there ever be harmony?
Simien delves into these issues with his strong, complicated characters, notably his principles: Sam (Tessa Thompson), Troy (Brandon P. Bell), Coco (Teyonah Parris) and Lionel (Tyler James Williams). Each of them struggle in some way to place their identities into a definitive category, and end up realizing it is not as simple as it seems. Perhaps the best example is Lionel, who is gay, bullied by his white peers and exiled by his black classmates. Characters as complex as these are hard to come by in any film, let alone a first-time screenplay.
Fortunately, the film’s dialogue is worthy of its characters. It manages to be witty, informative and extremely relevant while not sounding like a collage of paraphrased news articles, as issue-related films sometimes do. It treats its subject matter seriously within the framework of a tongue-in-cheek satire. It is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it never gets too serious.
Simien’s directing, on the other hand, is not quite at the level of his writing. Though he does not do a bad job with the movie’s visual elements, some shots are disorienting and the acting can fall a little flat. However, these flaws are not a testament to Simien’s talent as a director so much as his inexperience. His direction will only improve as his career progresses.
The only big problem with this movie is the soundtrack, which alternates between highbrow academia classical music and more modern hip-hop and rap. The genres are just too different to allow for a smooth transition between scenes, but the fact that this is the most noticeable problem just goes to show how solid the film is.
Racial issues in this era are anything but black and white; they are incredibly sensitive topics. And yet, flawed as it is, “Dear White People” manages to make fun of them without making light of them. The film is easily worth the $9 student ticket.