Satire is such a perfect way to look at a deeply rooted socio-political problem and when it comes to race relations, it can be pretty effective. Filmmaker Justin Simien takes his protagonist Samantha White (obvious name use) and has her unexpectedly win the election of head of house (residence) at a fictional Ivy League school Winchester. Her election and loss of school favourite Troy sets a chain of events in motion that end with a riot at the school, when some white students get together and throw an African American themed Halloween party. This is Dear White People a stimulating first feature film by Justin Simien.
The best part of the script is how Simien takes an extremely complex problem that we face in North America (and other parts of the world) and places it in the heart of what would seem as liberal, privileged Ivy League America. The underlying discourse is that racism is dead and because black people are not being hanged from trees anymore, what is the problem? This is actually something the white president of the school says to Samantha when she is being reprimanded for rigging her election.
The film follows Samantha’s evolution as sudden Head of House, her struggle with her own political positioning, reconciling that with her anarchist filmmaker self (something that her white boyfriend, who TA’s her filmmaking class, tries to put in perspective for her) and finding time to host her radio show that has the name and rhythm of the film. And while Samantha and her radio show are the pivot that takes Dear White People in various directions, we are introduced to characters who represent our social reality. There is the rich kid of the president, Kurt who doesn’t understand why black people need to be given special favours and uses his running of the school magazine ‘Pastiche’ promising people gigs on Saturday Night Live. Troy (Brandon P Bell) hails from a well to do family black family and has the burden of his father’s expectations (the Dean at the school), who wants him to be part of those men who run the world and not be taken by drugs, women and the rest.
The gem of the narrative is Lionel (subtly brilliant performance by Tyler Williams) who is the nerdy gay student, who writes for the alternative newspaper and is taken in by the attention this aspiring editor gives him, just so he can have him write solid articles for him. It’s Lionel who finally decides to stand up to Kurt and his black themed Halloween party (full of gold chains, fried chicken and face masks).
The film plays on so many issues from affirmative action, to all the known and unknown stereotypes about questions of lighter skin colour among black people, how they do their hair, hip-hop, the half blackness of Obama… you name it.
While the chaos plays out on campus at Winchester we are looking at how class and race conflict is at the heart of everything we do and are. Surely, we don’t hang people on trees anymore, but the colour of your skin can only get you as far. I unfortunately agree with Simien that most people think we have moved on from this. As the race politics on campus comes to a head with the black (and other non-white) kids crashing (literally) the white Halloween party, the film ends with the white president and the black dean sitting in discussion with a reality TV show producer who finds the riot picture perfect for his new TV show.
Dear White People is a slightly erratic, yet a stimulating take on how the media has made blackness about music and hair and a conflicted past and present.