The film Dear White People is written and directed by Justin Simien.
It is a ground-breaking work in the genre of African-American film-making.
Simien is doing a lot with this film. This may be a whole new genre in African-American film-making. There will be debates about this film, but good art forces great conversations.
What Spike Lee did with Do the Right Thing in the late 80s is what Simien has done with Dear White People for the millennium teens.
The setting of the film is on the campus of the predominantly white Ivy League of the fictional Winchester University (it reminded me a lot of Los Angeles' USC, though SC isn't quite an Ivy). The plot centers around the integration of Parker-Armstrong the all-Black residential hall at the campus and the issues of being Black on a campus that is hostile to Black people.
Simien understands satire and wields it with painfully accurate precision on the institution of not only race, but class, gender and sexual orientation.
If you’re expecting to see a bunch of strung-together jokes on race, you’re going to be disappointed. You will actually have to think to watch this film.
Dear White People also takes the bold move of casting a woman as the lead. Tessa Thomas is cast as Samantha White. Thomas as Samantha is a fully developed character without the customary gratuitous nudity that so many women of color are forced to participate in owing to Hollywood’s narrow definition of women and people of color.
The YouTube trailer of Dear White People does not do this film justice. Yes, Samantha does have a radio show, there is a racist fraternity party, but that’s a small part of the story and is not the main point of the film. The film has depth, complexity and a wide variety of characters.
The biggest surprise and treat of the film is Tyler James Williams (from Everyone Hates Chris fame) as Lionel Higgins who is a gay Black man with a taste for Star Trek who seemed to initially be the eternal outsider. Williams plays Higgins who is a reporter on the college’s white newspaper. He is assigned to write about an aspect of Black culture of which he knows little about.
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The character Higgins is forced to confront his preconceptions of his own race and others are forced to confront their ideas of him as a gay black man.
It was fun to watch him find himself in this film.
Williams’ performance was one of the most real and honest portrayals that I have ever seen of a gay man. He was a person who just happened to be gay. In 2014 that shouldn't be ground-breaking, but it was.
The gay experience like the Black experience is varied and this is the first time I’ve seen this experience portrayed in this manner on the big screen.
This film also challenged what is Blackness with a more in-depth portrayals of the bourgeoisie Black experience, the experiences of people who are often labeled “oreos” and the challenges of belonging when you don't fit within narrow parameters of what corporate America views as Black.
The oreo and the bourgeois Black experience are often just comic relief (think Carlton, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,) but in this film they are fully developed characters.
Troy, who is a legacy and son of the "Dean of Diversity", is played by Brandon P. Bell. Through Troy the complexities of the pressures of those who were raised with the “be a credit to your race” a la early W.E.B DuBois' philosophy are explored.
My only criticism is that there did appear to be a hint of colorism and classism. The challenges of being a darker skinned Black woman with working class roots was played by Teyonah Parris with the character Colandrea"Coco" Conners. Paris’ character was not as well rounded as the other characters and was almost like a caricature, but other than that it was a ground-breaking and brilliant film.
Dear White People will be in theaters on October 14.
Director: Justin Simien
Screenwriter: Justin Simien
Producers: Effie T. Brown, Ann Le, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Lena Waithe
Executive Producers: Stephanie Allain-Bray, Leonid Lebedev
Cinematographer: Topher Osborn
Production Designer: Bruton Jones
Editor: Phillip Bartell
Costume Designer: Toye Adepipe
Principal Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell
The Moningside Park Chronicle