When I was in high school I had this vision in my head that college would be a sort of intellectual paradise where everyone has scholarly pursuits on the mind all the time and you could spend every day engaged in stimulating discussions about academics and politics all day. Boy was I disappointed when I actually got there. As a result of the increasing demand on the part of businesses that their employees have a college education, universities are now flooded with people who don’t really care that much about having an education and who just want a degree to get a job. As such I lost count of the number to times I’d mention that I was getting a history degree only to receive a blank stare followed by the question “what are you going to do with that?” Don’t get me wrong, there were some genuine pockets of intellectualism, but the overwhelming impression I got was that college was over-rated as a place for minds to meet and discuss esoteric ideas. However, I’ve also come to realize that college is different for everyone and the new film Dear White People looks at what the college experience is like for African American students.
Set in a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University, Dear White People concerns the lives of four African American students. The most prominent is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), an activist and host of a show on the university radio station called “Dear White People” which comments on the various forms of subtle (and not so subtle) racism that she observes among the white students at the college. Her rival (of sorts) amongst the campus’ black community is Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the dean of student affairs (Dennis Haysbert) who generally tries to be diplomatic and amiable to white people. Another of her rivals is Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), who is trying to become a Youtube personality and seems very interested in blending in with the white girls. Finally there’s Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a shy homosexual who writes for a student paper and is something of an outsider amongst both black and white students.
Up to now most movies and television shows about the black college experience like School Daze and the show “A Different World” have focused on historically black universities, but Dear White People sets itself apart by focusing on an Ivy League university where African Americans are the minority, in theory at least, and each of the main characters are defined by their ways of coping with their minority status. Sam considers herself to be “one hundred,” which is to say that she leans into her racial identity and “fights the power” every chance she gets. Troy is labeled an “oofta,” someone who code-swaps and panders to the white people. And Coco is meant to be a “nose job,” someone who intentionally tries to “act white” to fit in. The film does somewhat undercut all this by focusing so heavily on the black population that their minority status on campus is sometimes lost on the audience. The student body of this campus is also seems largely devoid of other racial minorities like Latinos, Asians, and Africans but that is perhaps beside the point.
The film derives much of its comedy from Sam’s often witty and sometimes outrageous observations about post-Obama race relations. She’s the kind of person who would submit a fifteen page unsolicited paper about her theory that the movie Gremlins is secretly about suburban fears of black invaders (“the gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken, and freakout when you get their hair wet”). Pretty much all of the observations she makes (with a couple comedically silly exceptions) do have a kernel of truth to them, but she is prone to crying wolf at times and sometimes uses her preconceptions to midjudge people and situations. She should not be mistaken for a mouthpiece whose every statement is endorsed by the film or its writer, she is a character and one who is just as prone to youthful confusion and overstatement as any college student.
It might be worth noting that I have something of a personal connection to this movie because it was filmed at my alma mater the University of Minnesota. Seeing my former university double for an Ivy League school was both interesting and a little jarring, and it may have highlighted for me (in a way it may or may not for someone else) just how odd the film’s tone can be. Its set in a world where everything everyone says or does seems to be rooted in race relations and there’s a definite unreality to that. Of course the film is a satire, so to a certain extent it is supposed to be dealing in archetype and exaggeration, the problem is that the movie isn’t really as funny and as energetic as it needs to be to really back up the elevated tone that the script calls for. As it is the film is more of a modern day comedy of manners when it should be going for rip-roaring satire. There are certainly a number of amusing observations to be found in it but I’m not sure that writer/director Justin Simien ever quite found the right movie to fit them into. I’m curious to see what Simien does in the future, but I don’t think his debut feature quite works.
**1/2 out of Four