Written by Ana Beltschewa
Dear White People, written and directed by Justin Simien, is a satire centring on escalating racial tension at the fictional, prestigious and predominately white Winchester College. When SAMANTHA ‘SAM’ WHITE, the bi-racial host of the outspoken and controversial radio show ‘Dear White People’, unexpectedly beats her popular ex-boyfriend and son of the dean, TROY FAIRBANKS, in the election to head of house of Armstrong/Parker, the traditionally all-black house on campus, things get heated. In the meantime, COLANDREA ‘COCO’ CONNERS, who cannot wait to leave her south-side-of-Chicago roots behind, is trying to get TV producer HELMUT WEST to make her the centre of his reality show, while LIONEL HIGGINS, a shy, gay nerd gets a chance to finally fit in when he is recruited to write a piece on Sam for the student newspaper. When KURT FLETCHER, a white frat-boy-kind-of-guy and son of the school president throws a blackface-themed Halloween party, black and white students clash.
Dear White People is a political satire set in the current, supposedly post-racial Obama-era. Being part of this generation and racially aware and opened minded (as far as my self-assessment goes) I was intrigued by the premise. Even though there have been other movies that focus on racial inequalities, I think Simien provides a completely unique angle and tells a story that not only reflects his own voice but is highly relevant and up-to-date. Dear White People is not a slapstick comedy à la Big Momma’s House (2000) and also does not show black people as victims of white supremacy (Selma (2014), 12 Years a Slave (2013), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) etc.). Instead he addresses a generation who believes that their ancestors have eradicated all racial inequalities even though the deaths of black people still make the news and despite the fact that ‘[…] Obama could cure Cancer and somewhere White folks will be embroiled in protest’ (p.6).
Troy puts forward an argument I have heard many times in real life: ‘I don’t see the issue. I never had one. Never ran into any lynch mobs’ (p. 22). But Simien accurately tries to point out that today’s racism is not about bigotry but about a system of, at times subtle, racial disadvantage that is ingrained in our society. I believe Sam, the voice of injustice, speaks for many frustrated young people when she clarifies: no, black people cannot be racist (p. 65), yes, there is a ‘dear black people’, it is called Fox News (p. 4) and yes, dating a black guy to piss off your parents is in fact racist (p. 11).
But I think Simien is also a skilful writer, who realises that a feature film with a political message still needs an engaging storyline. Helmut correctly points out conflict is a commodity in the entertainment industry (p.15) and Simien does not lose any time to get right into the conflicts that drive his story. Already in the very first paragraph we learn that ‘a “race war” has erupted at one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions’ (p. 1) and by the end of page one we have already been introduced to all the major characters.
I find it truly impressive how competently he uses montage and intercuts to structure his scenes, in a way that keeps the pace up throughout the story. Even when he has to convey a lengthy piece of exposition, he manages to do so through action; when Sam for example explains her different categories for black people, Simien intercuts scenes of Troy (the Oofta) and a few other guys playing cards, while Sam in her room explains to fellow student Sungmi what she means by Oofta, Nose-job and One Hundred. Coco (the Nose-job) then joins the boys watching Sam’s ‘Dear White People’ on their laptop before she puts on her own YouTube channel (at the same time joyfully finding out that Helmut enjoyed her newest video) until Sam’s voiceover takes us to Lionel and Annie in the Newsroom (p. 44 -49).
In Dear White People, there are always several things happening at once. Instead of using the spilt-screen technique to make this possible, Simien realises the importance of social media not only in our real-life generation but also on the screen. The election is executed via a Smartphone app (p. 14) and popularity is measured by YouTube views (Coco knows that Sam is a real threat when her video gains 600k views, p. 25). This also helps connect the characters’ different POVs, for example when Annie watches a video that we see Coco record earlier before then making fun of it at the Halloween party (p. 42/25/86). In a story that is all about how different people react, I believe Simien has chosen wisely how to best present his story.
Simien further showcases his contemporary relevance with a dialogue peppered with pop culture references, from Frank Ocean to Robert Altman, and that proves to me that he is a talented and original comedy writer. The dialogue helps to show Simien’s but also the characters’ outspoken range, for example revealing Coco’s linguistic fluency when she explains the makeup of Armstrong/Parker to Helmut: ‘Traditionally it’s where the hopelessly Afrocentric gather to process their guilt over not going to an HBCU. (off Helmut’s look) Where the Negros be at’ (p. 4).
As a cinephile who devoted years of her life to studying film history, I can appreciate that despite its zeitgeist Dear White People does not ignore its own roots, paying homage to the filmmakers that paved the way for intelligent and critical films about race. Most prominently there is the connection to Spike Lee, as School Daze (1988) plays on Sam’s TV while a “Boycott Sal’s Pizzeria” poster adorns her wall (p. 44); Lionel’s violent outburst at the Halloween party is reminiscent of Mookie throwing the trash can into said pizzeria (Do The Right Thing (1989)) (p. 92).
But the intertwined plot is also almost Shakespearian; Troy dates the president’s daughter to please his father, George uses Lionel to get a high-flying job and Sam rallies against racism on campus after becoming head of house in a rigged election (even though it turns out she herself set up the black-face party). I am a big fan of the over-the-top high school dramatics and Dear White People is a political, grown-up 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), if you will. And just like Padua High School, Winchester College, with its ‘sprawling impressive mix of Colonial, Gothic and Modern architecture’ (p. 2), is a visually rich microcosm that allows Simien to put concepts of racial identity under his microscope.
Due to the vast amount of issues Dear White People sets out to tackle, it runs the risk of becoming superficial. However, I found myself relating to the characters on a level that goes beyond the colour of their skin because Troy, Sam, Coco and Lionel struggle with universal issues of identity. The school’s motto “NOSCE TE IPSUM” (‘know thyself’) points to the difficulties, especially amongst young people, to decide who they are, who they are going to be and how they want to appear to everyone else. Troy wants to smoke weed and write jokes while his father is grooming him to be a successful politician/lawyer/overall ‘respectable person’ and Sam is torn between being the radical ‘angry black girl’ and a young woman with a cookie-cutter boyfriend and a very ‘white taste’ in music. As Coco remarks, we, black or white, often want to be somebody else: ‘why are white folks obsessed with being black? And why are Black folks so addicted to blonde Barbie doll weaves?’ (p.80).
It is this mix of a skilfully presented, sharp and funny college drama with a political message that I think makes Dear White People so unique and interesting. Overall I admire the confidence and boldness with which Simien approaches such a charged topic, and thanks to its comedic value, is very entertaining. Instead of trying to please its audience and appeal to as many people as possible, Dear White People is a story that left me feeling incredibly uncomfortable, because it points out that we are all part of the problem. Simien does not try to offer any solutions in his story, but aims to reignite a debate. What more effective use of cinema is there?