Young people from different racial backgrounds mingled in circles of discussion in the lobby of Boston AMC Loews after viewing “Dear White People” the night the film debuted in Boston. “Dear White People” is independent writer-director Justin Simien’s big-screen breakout film. It satirically presents the many racial tensions that arise at an Ivy League institution.
Simien’s headstrong heroine Samantha “Sam” White, played by Tessa Thompson, wins the presidency at Armstrong Parker House to take back the historically black house and produces a biting satire radio show, delivering blunt lines such as, “Dear white people: stop dancing” or “Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” She airs her grievances against racism loudly, but silently struggles to reconcile her anger with her love for Taylor Swift, admiration for Quentin Tarantino and her relationship with her white father.
Aspiring student journalist and loner Lionel Higgins, played by Tyler James Williams, walks outside of social circles as a young gay black man. The “bougie” black character Colandrea “Coco” Conners tries to prove that nothing is “hood” about herself, despite her south side, Chicago origins, for the sake of television fame. Former house president Troy Fairbanks attempts to succeed in the white world and please his father, the dean of students, by dating the president’s daughter. However, he sneaks off to the bathroom to smoke weed.
Each of Simien’s black characters faces the question of where he or she stands as a black person in a white America. But they all agree on one thing in the end: hosting “ghetto” black person-themed frat parties on campus is not okay.
“Dear White People” expands the conversation about race beyond a list of grievances addressed to a single racial group, despite what the title suggests. Simien shows how people of color can be racist against their own people or blind to the racism that exists today out of complacency. Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), who graduated summa cum laude, accepts his position beneath the bigoted President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen), who barely passed his classes. Instead of encouraging White, Fairbanks accuses her of crying wolf over microaggressions that aren’t blatantly oppressive because they aren’t lynchings. She proves that America is still not beyond racism by sending out the frat party invitations.
Simien attempts to color the racial conflict beyond the black and white power struggle. The Asian and Latino student associations join the black student union in crashing the party. The multi-racial inclusion is nice, but the commentary stops there. “Dear White People” conforms to the mainstream focus on racism as mostly a black versus white issue.
The film doesn’t provide any concrete solutions to racism either, but the responsibility doesn’t belong solely to the generation of college-aged activists. The power to change things ultimately belongs to the older, white and oppressive generation represented by President Hutchinson. He sensationally publicizes the frat party to make profits for the college, highlighting the financial administrative priorities of elite colleges throughout the United States.
In the aftermath of the party, White concludes her radio show with, “Dear white people….nevermind.” Simien’s feature film accomplishes the task of showing how racism exists in America instead of telling about it. While “Dear White People” is a fictional and exaggerated film, the pictures of ghetto-themed parties hosted at Dartmouth College and Arizona State University rolling in the credits sharply remind the audience that the racism today is neither fictional nor an exaggeration.