As a film, Dear White People is incredibly well put together, and as a social commentary it's refreshing and on the nose.
Telling the story of four black students trying to make their way through a prestigious Ivy-League College, Dear White People is a brilliant film, one whose success paradoxically both relies on race and doesn’t. That is, you can quite easily watch this film with nothing more than a transitory knowledge of race-relations in America, and certainly not giving a damn about what is and isn’t racism, and still find plenty to like about it. Similarly, the four main characters, though obviously shaped by their race and all of the connotations it presents, exist as distinct, multi-faceted characters whose problems only indirectly involve race. Fitting-in, being accepted as your own person, struggling with the desire to rebel – these are all issues that plague the young, regardless of their race.
It’s hard to pick a single stand-out performance from what is a wonderfully acted film, especially among the four principle actors: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, and Brandon P Bell. The four of them each bring a vibrancy and differing kinds of vulnerability to their characters, so that as the film switches between the characters you want each in turn to be the sole protagonist – and on reflection realise that splitting the limelight between them is actually the best decision.
As a film, or rather as a comedy, Dear White People hits all the right notes. The humour is not as loud or obvious as it is in other films – there are only a few genuinely hilarious moments throughout – but instead there is a consistent, pervasive level of biting satire and dry wit. You spend the entire film chuckling rather than waiting expectantly for the next moment to laugh. The way the film is written is sublime. Not only does it manage to sculpt four sympathetic, individual characters (something many films struggle to do for just one or two characters in the same time frame), it weaves and layers each character’s plot into one cohesive story that builds and rises to an outrageous peak and satisfying conclusion.
While Dear White People certainly succeeds in existing beyond the central issue it tries to grapple with (racism, if you haven’t worked that out yet), its real triumph is in how it deals with making such a contentious social commentary. The single best thing that director/writer Justin Simien does in his film is to eschew himself very quickly from the traditional, well-beaten path taken by films about race. Dear White People is not a film about white people oppressing black people – while that does play an important role, it is mainly consigned to the comedic side of the film, with almost all of the jokes being jabs at race-relations and the white/black divide. What this film is really about is black people oppressing other black people, about what black culture actually is, about the idiocy of the notion that just because a group of people look vaguely the same they should somehow identify equally with one another.
Dear White People (2014), directed by Justin Simien, is distributed in the UK by The New Black Film Collective, Certificate 15.