by NAOMI HARRIS
***WARNING: Contains Spoilers***
Dear White People, a debut film for director and writer Justin Simien, pulls back the veil of America’s boxed concept of identity, especially in black culture. Through his four main characters, all of whom are black and attending Winchester University (a fictional Ivy League), Simien is able to show how hard it is to change an established stereotype.
The main protagonist, Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson), tries to overcompensate for her racial status as a headstrong black activist, willing to stand up against racially insensitive students or even the president of the school. She uses her radio show, Dear White People, to highlight the issues relevant to practically every college campus/natural interaction a black person can have. But she isn’t simply just black.
Lionel Higgins (played by “Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams), is an awkward student and potential journalist who just so happens to be gay, struggles immensely throughout the film as he tries to find his place within the school. Whether it’s at the school paper or in the Black Student Union, Lionel’s journey throughout the film is familiar to any college student trying to find their “comfort zone” at school. But Lionel is apprehensive with students mocking him for his sexual preference, even though he is more than just gay.
Troy Fairbanks (played by Brandon P. Bell), the son of the Dean and political figure, fights between what he wants to do and what is expected of him. He is perceived as pretentious, but living underneath a legacy is challenging, especially when your whole life is planned out for you. Troy, in a sense, begins the movie as the opposite of Lionel, fitting the mold for any and everyone he associates with. But although he seems to be Mr. Popularity, is he only doing it for the approval of his dad?
And then there’s Coco Connors (played by Teyonah Parris), a YouTube blogger with dreams of being on reality TV, trying to reach the top of the students at Winchester by any means necessary. She initially attempts to deny her association with her race through her choice of friends, eye color, and her hair. Despite her disdain for being black, she has a revelation about the reasons behind her identity crisis. But her motivation becomes clear once an organization at the school hosts a certain Halloween themed party.
Simien portrays the complexity of identity with each of his characters. This is not just a black movie, even though the characters make painfully relatable points about how black students interact on campus. Simien uses multiple characters to show that there’s more than one way to examine this behavior.
People are always ready to stamp labels on one another rather than understand their many layers. There’s background, experience and struggles that shape us so one label will no longer suffice.
The film covers a number of issues that all circle around the characters questioning their identities. Interracial dating, homosexuality, cultural competition, racism and insensitivity are all wrapped up in this movie. They, amongst others, dictate how the characters view each other.
The “black experience” helps exemplify this issue because black students are often placed in stereotypical and theoretical boxes until people give them a chance to prove otherwise. Or for Sam, Lionel, Troy and Coco, their actions replace a page full of words.
Simien also displays the issue of forcing opinions and beliefs on others. At times, when someone comes to a conclusion on their own, there is more clarity than hearing it from others.
This film helps outline our human flaw- we are quick to judge each other, and yet with Simien’s vision it becomes clear how wrong we are if we only see the label.