What it's about:
A social satire that follows the stories of four black students at an Ivy League college where controversy breaks out over a popular but offensive black-face party thrown by white students. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film explores racial identity in acutely-not-post-racial America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world.
What we thought:
Hollywood loves a good race film, and generally the issues are compounded in epic slave films and fights for equality from the past, both American and South African, without pissing anyone off by addressing current debates about race and identity. In South Africa, this was revealed in the recent media attention on the defacing, and removal, of Cecil John Rhodes, a man judged for his past and deemed unworthy of his pedestal.
Dear White People, although focusing on race and identity at an American Ivy League school, holds much truth for South Africans and themes surrounding black cultural appropriation, being seen as a ‘coconut’, the idea that racism is ‘over’, institutionalised racism and that those protesting racial prejudice are ‘nuisances’ who don’t have better things to do with their time.
A young student Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts a college radio show called ‘Dear White People’, in which she sheds light on small everyday behaviours that can be construed as racist. Her friends, a group of black consciousness activists, rope her into running for president for their traditionally black residence and fight against the school who wants to racially mix up the residences. In-between this, other students deal with their black identities and how they are perceived on campus, all the while another house decides to throw a ‘black culture’ party amidst the unrest at the school.
Justin Simien, the director and writer of this film who also funded it through Indiegogo and got studio assistance at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a master at fantastic dialogue and getting his actors to throw great punches with the subtlest sarcasm. He touches on a variety of racial issues in the film without pretending to know the answer to all of them. There’s no clean resolution at the end of the film, but instead ends with some characters’ acceptance of their identities, some who continue to live how others want and that racial inequality doesn’t disappear overnight. He also had a great working relationship with his cinematographer and stylist, both who created a product that so beautiful to watch, with a slight Wes Anderson-esque style.
The actors were all fantastic, a group of young Hollywood I would love to see in more mainstream films in central roles. This small-budget film has brought them a few awards on the indie circuit, including Sundance, you will recognise some of the faces.
Tyler James William (Everybody Hates Chris) who plays the geeky gay guy dealing with homophobia was one of my favourites with the best lines. Tessa Thompson (Veronica Mars) who plays the lead dealing with family problems as well as starting a revolution on campus, had so much grace on the screen, even when she was distraught, and had great chemistry with every other cast member. Teyonah Paris (Mad Men) and Kyle Galner (Veronica Mars) were also great as the least liked characters. All of them really worked well together as an ensemble and couldn’t have made a better choice.
Even beyond its heavy themes, this movie has an intelligent humour that will make you cry with laughter, and make you laugh at yourself while questioning your own internal prejudice, regardless of your skin colour. I loved the film, and white people should not feel intimidated by its title.
Go see it with an open mind, and I hope all South Africans, especially the students of your country, go check this out and be entertained as well.