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Film Review: Dear White People (2014)

It is almost guaranteed that if you were ever a university student, you attended at least one Halloween fancy dress party. People brought out their weirdest and most wonderful of costumes, from a questionably dodgy old school uniform, to that gremlin mask they purchased two years ago that they finally have an excuse to wear. And the wigs were all shapes and sizes; some were afros and perhaps some white students wore them with a Jackson Five costume, perhaps with some black face paint thrown on for good entertainment value? No? Well, such university or college parties have been known to cross the threshold of cultural appropriation and racism, upon which Justin Simien’s debut feature film Dear White People shines a vivid and satirical light.

This film has become a cult classic with its delivery of a whip-smart script and glowing cast of young black talent. Tessa Thompson plays Sam, the reluctant leader of a group of African American students at the prestigious Winchester University. Although the minority in ethnicity at the US-based college, their voices are amplified by Sam’s radio show Dear White People, where she proceeds to tell white people on campus exactly what they’re doing wrong and why it’s probably racist.

By all accounts, race is a delicate subject that some filmmakers have either sledgehammered into the faces of audiences or ignored completely. Writer-director Justin Simien, however, takes an ironic look at the relationship between race, being college educated today, and the experiences of black millennials in an America that many, just like the white male President of the college, claim is “no longer racist.”

In the midst of this overarching story there are a host of well-defined and challenging characters for all to identify with. From the awkward, gay, wannabe writer played by Tyler James Williams (of Everybody Hates Chris fame), to the perfectly manicured African American woman who doesn’t want anyone to think she’s from the hood, played to perfection by Teyonah Parris, as well as the handsome, athletic intellectual who is admired by all but is extremely unhappy in his role, played by the chiselled jaw of Brandon P. Bell.

Additionally, the audience gets to witness the party to end all parties because it’s so inappropriate, as well as some beautiful back-and-forth dialogue about race, activism and anarchy, and classic one-liners that will feel very familiar and hilarious to any person of colour:

“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.”

This film is in and of itself a dichotomy, not for the easily offended but equally for those who should take offense a lot more often than they do. It’s a celebration of colour and difference, without pandering to any one side and letting the important message of institutional racism in education sit lightly on the chest, delivered with laughter and intellectual repartee. A must see for anyone and everyone.

Written by Maame Blue

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