I had been waiting to see Dear White People for a long old time. I stumbled upon its IMDB page last year and had very little hope that its limited release would reach my local cinema. It did not, as with most indie films featuring minority issues I had to seek the film out myself. I tend to make an effort to watch the rare film featuring a black cast that makes it into cinemas but isn’t about slavery, and doesn’t star Will Smith. I will still watch Will Smith films, I even went to the cinema to see After Earth (a decision that still fills me with regret) – because as Dear White People points out ‘We are an underfed community’. Naturally I jumped at the chance to review this.
Dear White People is a sharp and provocative satire that highlights and discusses the touchy subject of race relations in today’s society. The film follows a group of African American college students as they navigate life on campus at a predominantly white school.
What I enjoyed most about Dear White People, and what I suppose is largely one of the main ideas of the film is that it features a smorgasbord of black characters, and I emphasise the word characters. These are not tokens or stereotypes but people. And though the film is largely about the various difficulties with being black in a place that is dominated by white people, none of these black characters are defined by their blackness. Rather we see them attempt to navigate a society that tries to shoehorn each one of them because of their race, but this in itself allows their characters to develop and encourages the audience to view each of them as individuals and not black faces – and not all positive individuals, there are black heroes in this film and there are black villains, and there is also black everything in between. In fact the film seems to make almost a conscious effort to accurately and honestly represent not only minority ethnicities, but women and homosexuals. It was joyous to actually see minority characters that could be identified with beyond the label of their minority. It reinstalled the hope I had lost in society when someone thought Get Hard was an acceptable film to make.
Structurally, Dear White People is a coming of age drama that is not unique. Characters like these have been seen before in many a college movie. That being said, the writing adds a layer of intelligence and wit far beyond what an audience may have come to expect. With line after line laced with sly social critique and sharp edgy one-liners, I found often found myself wanting to cheer and clap along. The narrative itself is reasonably predictable and littered with easy cliches, but it serves as a reliable vehicle to get the film’s messages across.
The film itself is also very solidly made, the casting is excellent – Tessa Thompson gives an great performance and in fact, every actor does a great job in portraying the complex characters Justin Simien wrote for them. The visuals in Dear White People have also clearly been well considered. I noticed particularly purposeful use of shot framing to emphasise distance between certain characters and to bring certain players into positions of power. This is an old and well-used trick, but something that can easily be forgotten in this type of youth drama.
I actually thought that where the film ends up – the themed halloween party where all the white college students are encouraged to ‘release their inner negro’ – was a little ridiculous. The idea of it fit well with what the film was trying to say, but in a film that is honest and grounded in realism throughout, it felt dramatic and sensational. Unfortunately the end credits show newspaper clippings of all the recent college parties that have carried this theme, reiterating a lot of the film’s points and really framing it in todays society. Arguably that knowledge makes it a much more difficult watch and brings a film that is generally quite comic and lighthearted to a solid and poignant close.
Dear White People is an impressive debut from Justin Simien and I eagerly await his bright future in filmmaking. The film comes out on VOD & DVD November 2nd 2015, you can watch the trailer below.