After months of teasing trailers and promises of “Coming Soon,” Dear White People had its Brooklyn premiere in a sneak preview at BAM last night, to a fully packed house. The film won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and won Best Picture at the San Francisco Film Festival. Written and directed by Justin Simien and starring Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) and Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls, Veronica Mars), Dear White People is a humorous polemic of racial politics told through the experiences of black students at an Ivy League university.
Lionel Higgins (Williams) is a gay, black loner who doesn’t fit in—not “black enough” for the black kids, not gay enough for the gay kids. Sam White (Thompson) is an outspoken voice in the Black Students’ Union at Winchester University (at once a subtweet and a catchall of institutionalized racial bias) who hosts a campus radio show called “Dear White People.” She delivers one-liners like “Dear White People: The minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two,” “This just in—dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism,” and “Dear White People: Stop dancing.”
A central conflict in the film is a new randomized housing policy that is changing the makeup of Winchester’s traditionally black dorm, diluting the existing community of the house in the name of inclusivity even as sports- and political-affiliated houses on campus are allowed to go on unchanged. It’s an apt metaphor for gentrification, and the film takes the loss of black culture as the greatest threat to campus life.
This is a film about race, as the title suggests, but its handling of the topic is far beyond the freshman-year crash course typical of Hollywood—Crash, The Help, The Butler—which are often too problematic to explore issues in any depth, and more often than not frame black people in the context of bondage or domestic help. Dear White People is a graduate seminar in the present tense, written for an audience that has long ago memorized the required reading. Between arguments over representation of black people in American film (Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation) and the contemporary rhetoric of protest, the film touches on the identity politics of black hair, code-switching, and interracial dating.
Leaving the theater, my friends and I walked to a bar to unpack a bit, despite its being a school night. Each of us had noticed something minor that turned into a twenty-minute discussion. We were conflicted about whether we wished there had been more white people in the audience or whether, had there been, we would have decried it as another example of the bleaching of the borough. Dear White People is probing and hilarious, and opens lines of inquiry and questions of identity not often acknowledged, much less addressed, by Hollywood movies. It represents an affront to the ongoing representation of black people in American movies, and is worth seeing for itself as much as for the discussions that will no doubt follow.
Dear White People is in theaters October 17.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.