Review: Dear White People

by Lola E Peters

I had to see this film twice. The first time I was set off balance by its challenge to my expectations. The trailers for this film are misleading. The ads indicate that it is about what’s wrong with white people. It isn’t about that. So, what is it about?

Set in a majority-white, Ivy League college in the Midwest, the story tracks the 21st Century tensions among and between black and white students.

Primary characters include:

  •         Troy: the black son of the college’s Dean of Students;
  •         Sam: a black, female film student from a trans-racial family;
  •         Coco: a black, female video-blogger from Chicago;
  •         Lionel: a black, gay, journalism student;
  •         Kurt: the white son of the college’s President;

The film’s title comes from the campus radio call-in program hosted by Sam. She uses that platform to address racial micro-aggressions observed on campus. She has also written a survival guide for black students that is referenced throughout the film.

Tension erupts when members of the Black Student Union engineer to elect Sam over Troy as Head of House for the formerly all-black student dormitory. This impacts Troy’s relationship with his father, and his girlfriend (who is the President’s daughter and Kurt’s sister). Lionel, not a resident of the dorm, agrees to write a story for the campus’ primary newspaper about the tension between Sam and Troy. Kurt is Head of House of the elite campus dormitory, where Coco and Lionel live. He is also editor of the school’s satire magazine. Coco wants to be a star and is frustrated when she auditions for a reality-TV show and is told there isn’t enough tension in her life to make it interesting.

The film uses these characters to amplify college students’ universal search for identity and place while exploring the dynamics of power and race through filters of class, gender, and sexual orientation.

What happens when a legacy of power is challenged or taken away? What is the intergenerational impact, cost or benefit, of racially bestowed power? How do stereotypes set up unnecessary barriers to authentic relationship? What role does media play in perpetuating stereotypes and in facilitating liberation? How do the politics of race impact romance? How do the combined politics of race and class impact romance? What tactics are most effective in creating social change? How does racism manifest in the 21st Century? These are among the questions the film tackles. The filmmaker balances the seriousness of these topics with a comic lightness in the dialogue.

None of the characters plays true to type. Instead, they very subtly subvert their type by responding in unexpected ways to their circumstances. My friends who have seen the film compare it to Spike Lee’s 1988 classic School Daze, which was set in a historically black college. While there are certainly similarities in the archetypes used, the majority white setting of Dear White People shifts each character’s response to the underlying dynamics. There are neither pure heroes nor villains, only flawed humans learning how to live.

Technically, the film is beautiful. The colors are warm and inviting, even in the most emotionally charged moments. Borrowing from documentaries, the film uses chapter headings. Unlike documentaries, the background for each heading is in a tropical color: mango, papaya, banana, avocado. The filmmaker also uses framed stills at the start of the film to clearly identify the student hierarchy. Frames formalize scenes throughout; sometimes obviously, other times in the background.

I recommend this film, but do see it more than once. I’m looking forward to it coming out on DVD or Netflix so that I can watch it back-to-back with School Daze and perhaps study the changes in generational perspective, filmmaking style, and point of view.

Dear White People is currently playing at South Seattle’s Ark Lodge Cinemas