Can an Indiegogo funded film, as Dear White People was, lay claim to being the new satirical consciousness of young people in a country on its second term of Obama politics? Where the characters use insults like “a Lisa Bonet lookalike wannabe,” and “wannabe Black Panthers” and one of the lead character’s does not like his white girlfriend to say “thang.” The black students in an ivy league school struggle to find their identity in a time of U.S. history where the first black president has been in the White House for two terms. The issue, behind Dear White People‘s amusing look at racism being the “obvious” plot, is more about university students learning how to be true to themselves, learning about their identity and what really constitutes racism in this “new world.”
The title of the film comes from a radio show presented by junior media major Sam White, played by Tessa Thompson (South Dakota, Automotive). The show professes to be the conscience and reality of black students and explains to the non-black ones what their prejudices really are. The main protagonists are, Sam, Troy Fairbanks, played by Brandon P. Bell (2 Broke Girls, Hollywood Heights), Kurt Fletcher, played by Kyle Galine (Haunting in Connecticut, Beautiful Creatures) and Everybody Hates Chris actor Tyler James Williams as the freshman with the massive afro Lionel Higgins.
Brittany Curran (Chicago Fire, Twisted) plays Sofie, sister of Kurt and girlfriend of Troy; Teyonah Parris (Mad Men, How do You Know) plays “Coco” Conners, YouTube personality and wannabe reality TV star and Dennis Haysbert, the face of All State insurance plays Dean Fairbanks. Dear White People tries to be the new consciousness of students in the ivy league, based upon some real incidents in other colleges as evidenced by news headlines at the end of the film.
Written and directed by Justin Simien, Dear White People is his first feature length film. Cinematographer Topher Osborn (The Single Life, Tiny Commando) shot the film on the Red Epic digital camera and despite the project not using film as its chosen medium, the movie looks brilliant. The soundtrack on Dear White People is an excellent mix of rap and classical music with the use of each being designed to highlight comedic and serious themes of each scene.
Dear White People starts with a number of students watching the news. The story being broadcast is about a racially inflammatory party that incited a race riot at Winchester University and after the basic outline is given, the movie shifts back to events leading up to the party and the riot. Simien’s film is clever and uses cultural references slyly and brilliantly. In one scene between Sam and Gabe, he has told her off for overcompensating for being a “mulatto.” Sam responds by telling her estranged lover that you cannot say that, he responds by saying the name repeatedly. During their heated argument, Gabe then says “I’m sorry I can’t be your nubian prince on my black horse ready to take you back to f***ing Zamunda.”
Sam replies that Zamunda is not a real place and Gabe says that he should be getting credit for a solid Coming to America reference. The film is entertaining, clever, amusing, and asks all the right questions. In the film, the all white “house” and staff of the school magazine Pastiche, send out an invitation that tells students that they can “release” their “inner” Negro. Amazingly 100 students show up. Some in “blackface,” others wearing dreads and still more kitted out like rappers. The logical conclusion to this party is the “riot.”
Dear White People is funny and intelligently asks what really constitutes racism now in America whether it is in the ivy league or not. A film where the asian student hangs out in the black club because, “they have better food.” Amusingly, that is why the all white magazine staff eat at the “black” house’s dining room even though they are not supposed to, for the food. Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate are distributing the Code Red, Duly Noted and Homegrown Pictures produced film. Rather tellingly, the film’s invitation for the party is an almost word-for-word recreation of a real party’s invitation hosted in the University of California San Diego. That 2010 party was hosted by an Afro-American and featured no violence at all, however, the resultant uproar on campus made the news. Dear White People opens in cinemas across the country on October 24, 2014. Prepare to be amused and intellectually stimulated as well as impressed with Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson.
By Michael Smith