There have been numerous films to explore race relations in American history, yet few choose to challenge the notion that the country is beyond that. With Dear White People, director Justin Simien creates an impressive deconstruction of post-racial American by satirizing what it means to be black, white people’s ignorance towards race, and how everyone still has their own faults brought to the table. It is stylish, sharp and funny, and also one of the most profound and memorable films on the subject.
The title derives from a fictional show of the same name, hosted by Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) which exists solely to bash white people’s obsession with acting like stereotypical blacks. The story takes place at a fictional Ivy League school and is populated by varying personalities ranging from outcasts (Tyler James Williams), to privileged (Brando P. Bell) to fame obsessed (Teyonah Parris) blacks who take issue with the explicit racism that the white members of the prestigious school throw on them. The film start with established stereotypes of racial division and slowly progresses to challenge these notions with humor and insight.
While the film starts as a celebration of black identity, it quickly blurs the lines with hostility and a decreasing sense of authentic identity. With most of the cast playing college students, it captures not only the essence of racism in our schools, but also explores the struggle between the accepted and actual persona that one has in order to be understood by their peers. As it transitions into the third act and tackles the racist frat party that bookends the film, it turns into an uncomfortable, visceral cinematic depiction of how unresolved these issues are. Even those fighting the good fight have to get their hands dirty, and the film manages to present this message in a profound way.
Simien’s directorial style is fascinatingly stylish and inverses racial stereotypes. The film is divided up into chapters with title chapter cards designed with an academic embroidery and titles reminiscent of school activities. The soundtrack is also divisive, in which scenes depicting white people features hedonistic hip-hop and the blacks listen to classical music from Swan Lake. There are analogies that explore black identity, specifically one involving bebop jazz that comes to define the subtext of the film.
The film is also an insightful takedown of black culture in the media. Coco (Parris) is the prominent example of this, as she attempts to be outrageous in order to get onto a reality show. Her desperation creates a betrayal of her culture and only exploits the despicable nature of how blacks should act when on TV. There is also an entire scene in which Tyler Perry’s Madea character gets berated in hilarious fashion that also addresses the lack of quality films that appeal to them. Not to be outdone, there’s even discussion of how white people have represented blacks in movies with one of the funniest, strangest Birth of a Nation homages in decades.
The film is unrepentant and chooses to explore every facet of the hypocritical nature of the post-racial America concept. What Dear White People has done is create a defining, unforgettable dissection of black identity and white ignorance in ways that make Django Unchained feel lazy. The title may be the most appropriate title of any Sundance film this year, as this film should be a wake-up call to those who think racism is dead. There is still plenty to work out and this film may be a defining example of our time. It is funny, sleek, and most of all a film with an important message and a very promising director and cast. It demands your attention and refuses to let go until the credits roll and has implanted something unlike anything you have seen before.