Well, everyone seems to have an opinion of this movie, or at least, of its Netflix adaptation. So, I figured I'd finally post my review. I've been wanting to review this one even before all the controversy. Hey, I watch this movie before it was cool. So, what movie are we going to talk about? We're going to be taking a look at Dear White People.
The movie takes place at fictional Winchester Academy; think Ivy League style liberal arts college, and you wouldn't be too far off the mark. It is told from the point of view of a wide variety of black students. You've got Lionel, a nerdy gay student who finds himself alienated by both the gay and black students. You've got Troy, the son of the dean who dreams of being a comedian, and is also a closet nerd. You've got Coco, who dreams of fame and fortune. Most of all, however, you've got Sam. She's a radical member of the Black Student Union, or mixed-race ancestry, who hosts a radio show called Dear White People.
All of the characters, and many more, start of as somewhat separate storylines, but begin to intertwine as the movie progresses. By the end of the movie everything collides together for the big finale. Okay, that's enough summary for now, let's talk about what I thought about this movie.
I don't know exactly where I saw the trailer for this movie, but based purely on that, it looked like it would be reasonably funny and entertaining film. I could have gone to see it at my local independent films theater, but I never got around to it for various reasons. However, I did eventually rent it, and I can safely say that my first impression proved true. Now, before we go any further we need to talk about why this film is so controversial
A lot of the complaints about the film have to do with Sam, along with her fellow radicals, and the things they say. They certainly do make some fairly charged and inflammatory comments about race, particularly with regards to white people. However, there's something a lot of people miss: Sam isn't meant to be a sympathetic character. Well, not entirely at any rate. Sam's character arc is based around her coming to terms with being mixed-race. Her mother is black and her father is white, and Sam is secretly in a relationship with a white guy. Throughout her life she felt inadequate and as though she was being judged by other black people. As a result, she felt the need to over compensate, and so she crafted an angry black women persona in response.
I have known certain mixed-race individuals who have gone through similar things; so it certain does have a ring of truth to it. Another aspect is that, at least initially, a few of the BSU's grievances are at least somewhat legitimate. However, the problem arises with how they express those views. For example, there's one scene where they are protesting the latest Tyler Perry movie. A lot of the thing they say are actually criticism I myself have of Mr. Perry's films. The problems comes when, instead of complaining to a producer or a script writer, they scream at the ticket dude at the local theater.
So there's people who might see a clip from the movie out of context and get the wrong impression. On the flip side there's a, frankly disheartening, amount of people on places like Tumblr that unironically worship pre-character development Sam. Well, actually, that's not so surprising. This is Tumblr we're talking about here. Side note, it's always rather awkward to write about characters named Sam, but I digress.
For what it's worth Justin Simien, the writer, director and producer of the movie, has said that he considers the movie a love letter to white people. In particular, the many white boyfriends he's had over the years.
Now let's talk about some of the other characters, specifically Lionel. His problem is that he's too gay for the black students, but not stereotypically gay enough for the gay students. His character arc is all about learning to be true to himself and forge his own identity, rather than conforming to the desire of others. You could as see his arc at least partially as a commentary on anti-gay sentiment within the black community. Justin Simien is himself a gay black man. I like to think there's a bit of him in Lionel.
Coco's arc is also about learning to accept herself. She's worried that she acts too stereotypically black to fit in. It certainly doesn't help that her real name is Collandrea. There's certain times she insists that she isn't that black, despite being rather dark skinned. I have known certain black people who have expressed similar concerns about fitting in, so it does all feel true to life.
That leaves us with Troy. I should have meaning this earlier, but his dad is played by Dennis Haysbert, better known as the Allstate guy. You will probably get a chuckle or two because of this. Anyway, he's trying to please his father while also trying to find his own voice. He’s also a closet nerd, but tries his best to hide this from his popular white friends. As you can see, the movie's theme can easily be summarized as "be yourself, not who others want you to be, and forge your own identity."
So now we've got to talk about one of the other more infamous parts of this movie: the blackface party at the end. Well, it's actually one of the first things we see in the movie, but the bulk of the plot is explaining how we get there. Originally, Justin Simien was going to cut it out on the grounds that it was too unrealistic, but then he founded example of actual college blackface parties. It reminds me of the end of my senior year of high school. There were some students throwing a party, which I didn't attended because I wasn't interested/did really have many true friends. The girls dressed as jungle princesses, and the boys...wore full-body blackface. I won't name any names, to protect the ignorant. Did I mention that I went to a small private Catholic high school full of rich white kids?
The point I'm trying to make is, I had no problem believing a party like that could exist. So, how does it come about? I'll leave that for you to find out when you watch this movie. So, while the main theme of the movie is about find your own identity, there's also a bit of satirization about race relations and collegiate craziness. The cinematography can be described as simple yet understated. The movie is divided into different acts much like a play. Each act is introduced by a translation card that looks like a piece of fancy stationary.
Recently, Dear White People has been adapted into a Netflix series of the same name. I haven't seen it as of the posting of this review. The movie feels like a pretty complete story in and of itself, but I can maybe see the series working. It could dive into the character's personalities and backstories more; give us a chance to really get to know them. On the other hand, it could stretch things out for too long, and mishandle the social commentary, so you never know.
What can I say? Dear White People is a funny, crazy, wild, and even at times heartwarming, dramedy about finding your identity. It was easily one of the best films of 2014, and it is certainly more than worthy of your time. Well, there you have it. Another review draws to an end.
Hmm, I probably should talk a bit about future projects I have going on...but I can't think of anything else to say. I will see you guys next time.