I HAD THE FOLLOWING conversation with my editor at the Mercury when he assigned me to review Dear White People:
"Shouldn't we have a black writer cover this?" I asked.
"It's called Dear White People," he said. "It sounds like it's addressed to us. Also, we don't have any black writers."
After seeing the movie, I have two things to report:
(1) This bright-eyed new film, crowdfunded via Indiegogo two years ago, isn't addressed to white people—not really. It's a comedy (of sorts) about racial tensions on a prestigious, predominantly white Ivy League campus. Most of the characters are African American, exploring what being black means to them in various often contradictory ways, and it's puzzling and irritating that the film's title seems to prioritize the white perspective. For once, it's not about us. (Sorry, white people! Don't worry, there's a new Nicholas Sparks movie out.)
(2) There's a scene in Dear White People where the main character, Lionel (Tyler James Williams), is asked to write a story for the school newspaper about a controversial election at the school's all-black residence hall. He's offered the writing assignment because the paper doesn't have any other black writers.
Touché, Dear White People.
The central conflict in Dear White People is driven by Sam (Tessa Thompson, AKA Jackie from Veronica Mars!), a fired-up young activist who hosts a satirical radio show called (you guessed it) Dear White People, where she instructs white people on the nuances of how to behave in a multiracial world. Sam is sharp and funny and her show is wildly popular, much to the irritation of campus hotshot Kurt (Kyle Gallner, AKA Beaver from Veronica Mars!). Kurt runs Pastiche, a Harvard Lampoon-esque campus comedy magazine, and he knows comedy—or so he thinks. When it comes time for him to plan Pastiche's annual Halloween party, he decides on a black-themed party that unintentionally exposes the latent racism of the college's campus.
There's entirely too much plot in Dear White People—throw in a reality TV producer, some complicated backstory between the college president, a dean, and their sons, and several romantic subplots, and it's bracingly clear that writer/director Justin Simien is pretty new to this filmmaking thing.
That said, Dear White People shines interpersonally, as its characters navigate how race factors into relationships, self-presentation, and group identification. And it doubles as a catalog of how creepy even the most well-intentioned white people can be—if you haven't yet gotten the "don't touch black people's hair" memo, there are some skin-crawlingly effective scenes that will drive the point solidly home.
Dear White People is wildly inconsistent, tonally—it can't quite decide if it's a straightforward campus comedy, a satire, or a polemic. At its best, though, it's reminiscent of the work of director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Lovely and Amazing). Simien errs on the side of too much plot, where Holofcener leans toward too little, and Simien's lens is race, where Holofcener's is gender, but both filmmakers are keenly perceptive when it comes to parsing how individuals are defined, driven, and limited by those social constructs. Dear White People is explicitly about race, but it's implicitly—and more interestingly—about identity, and how we construct our identities out of the building blocks at hand.