Dear White People vividly reminds us of what we already know: It’s a complicated business growing up black in America. So many stereotypes have developed over the years that if you avoid one, you may very well fall into another. How are you supposed to find your true self when someone, white or black, will always tell you that the true self you’ve found is a fraud? This collegiate comedy takes up those themes productively, and if it had as many laughs per square inch as a good Key & Peele sketch, I’d be calling it the year’s best movie. It doesn’t, so I’m not. Still, this is an impressive debut by a filmmaker who has thought deeply about race, and it inspired me to a few deep thoughts, too.
Set at a fictitious Ivy League school, the movie shares its title with a campus radio show hosted by African-American junior Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a media studies major who uses her platform to deliver peppery, racially tinged humor. (“Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”) Sam’s confrontational style riles fellow student Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) into starting her own YouTube broadcast defending her straightened hair and correct grammar against folks who think she’s not black enough. This catches the eye of Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the campus humor magazine’s editor who’s looking to add a writer of color to his staff and tells Sam straight-up that rich, educated white guys like himself are the most oppressed people on earth. Is he trolling her, or does he truly mean that? I say both.
This is the brainchild of Justin Simien, the 31-year-old gay Houstonian who has worked his way up through Hollywood. Expressing myriad points of view through its characters, his movie plays like an updated version of Spike Lee’s School Daze, minus the musical numbers. It’s neatly ironic that Sam, the lighter-skinned girl from a privileged background, is the militant voice on campus while Coco, the darker-skinned girl from an inner-city neighborhood, is trying to play by the existing rules set down by white people. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t stop there, as Sam is hiding a white boyfriend (Justin Dobies) and a playlist full of Taylor Swift songs, while Coco harbors considerable anger toward Kurt and his entourage, especially after they enlist her help in throwing a party where white people dress in ghetto fashions and wear blackface.
(In its closing credits, the movie names and shames universities where this has happened recently in real life. To any students reading this: Don’t throw a blackface party! It’s not a good idea!)
Besides the dueling broadcasts, useful material flows from the unhealthy competitive relationship between the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert) and the university president (Peter Syvertsen) who happens to be Kurt’s dad. A smarmy reality TV producer (Malcolm Barrett) runs around campus looking for racial conflict, too. Following all these characters is fairly dizzying, as your sympathies and rooting interests shift from scene to scene and sometimes within a scene. The movie’s moral anchor is Lionel (a magnificent Tyler James Williams), a gay African-American wallflower who gets crapped on by pretty much everyone and wears his hair in a gigantic Afro not as a statement of pride but seemingly as something to hide inside.
Simien has so many ideas running loose here that his movie occasionally overloads and turns talky. Still, there’s a nicely tense confrontation when Sam and the dean call each other out for overcompensating in different ways, and Sam also has a moving monologue late in the film about her ailing father. (The delicate-featured, soft-voiced Thompson is fantastic as a character who’s trying to be a firebrand but isn’t cut out for it.) The characters are layered enough to make this like the best movies about college, a story about figuring out who you really are.
And there are enough funny bits to make the whole thing go down easily, like Sam and her friends crowding a hapless theater ticket agent to bash movie stereotypes or Sam’s pet theory about why the 1984 movie Gremlins is a racist parable. Comedy about race is dangerous (I mean, like, blackface party dangerous), but it’s thrilling when it’s done right like it is here. Dear White People reminds us of something else we already know: Our ongoing national conversation about race is often best opened with a joke.
Dear White People
Starring Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, and Tyler James Williams. Written and directed by Justin Simien. Rated R.