“Dear White People” is the movie of the moment; a funny, tense, unflinching look at race relations at a fictional Ivy League university that defiantly plucks at an exposed nerve in our country that runs all the way from Ferguson to the White House.
Written and directed by newcomer Justin Simien, “Dear White People” was a darling of the Sundance Film Festival and arrives at a moment when both black and white America are doing an awful lot of soul searching.
What’s interesting about this movie is it shows how a new generation is dealing with decades of baggage and ignored problems with the hope they may be able to find a new way forward.
The movie tackles the subject by following four very different African-American students as controversy starts to broil on their campus. Simien has a keen eye and a vibrant energy that allows him to confidently wade right into the middle of these questions even though his movie is a little rough around the edges.
First, we have the handsome and popular Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), who is a campus leader, son of the dean (played by Dennis Haysbert), and least likely to want to upset the status quo.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is much more militant-minded as she forcefully and defiantly confronts the latent racism she encounters on the campus and seems ready and eager to take up any cause.
Fame-driven Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) courts controversy not because she is seeking social justice, but because she is seeking a part on a reality TV show.
Lastly, we have Lionel Higgens (Tyler James Williams), a meek social outcast with a massive, unkempt afro who is trying to eke out the tiniest amount of breathing room just to be himself on a campus full of domineering personalities.
“Dear White People” is packed with cutting commentary and sly observations about race in America in 2014. The main conflict for all these characters is in the tension between speaking out against racial inequities and simply trying to get by and try to live a regular life like a normal human being.
As one of the white people this movie is addressing, this movie made me realize the biggest white privilege in America today is the ability to ignore racism. If we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist; so as we experience our daily human interactions (primarily with other white people) without witnessing any racist acts, then racism in America must have ended the day Obama was elected. Hooray!
For the characters in “Dear White People,” the racism they encounter isn’t overt. There are no fire hoses or burning crosses, but instead, it is like a death of a thousand cuts where every slight is at best caused by ignorance and at worst caused by intolerance.
There are no easy answers here, no slow-clap speech that rallies the campus and makes us all better people in the end. With nobility and bad actors on both sides of the racial divide, this is a movie that is nowhere near as preachy or clear-cut as its title would imply.
“Dear White People” is witty and flawed, designed to challenge your comfort zone without being heavy-handed. It may not be the best movie of the year, but it just might be the most important.
“Dear White People” is rated R for language, sexual content, and drug use.