Dear White People is a genuinely funny, brilliantly acted and assuredly relevant dramedy that follows student politics in the lead-up to an altercation between students of colour and the attendees of a blackface-themed Halloween party on campus.
Whilst Dear White People cannot be said completely to shy away from the label of “issues-related” or “social problem film,” its fictional Ivy League backdrop and all-round exceptional performances allow for its collective-protagonist-driven roaming narrative and crescendo of property damage (the physical violence against white people in the scene in question is as absent as systematic violence towards Black people is present) to act as a witty parallel to Do the Right Thing, rather than simply trying to “update” it. Justin Simien has gone on record as not wanting to be called “the next Spike Lee,” and nor should he. But he has also name-checked Do the Right Thing and it would be dishonest to act as though I hadn’t noticed similarities.
The well expressed (if – at moments – a little stagey) socio-political discourse to one side, Dear White People‘s strength – its vividly multi-dimensional narrative, carried by 4 stellar leads and a fabulous host of supporting cast, acts paradoxically as its weakness. The desire to see so many characters have a legitimate story – as Sam (Tessa Thompson) herself says, with development and a background other than their race – in a 108 minute film does somewhat result in none of the characters quite fully having that.
Troy (Brandon Bell) is given the most background (due to the presence of his father, also the Dean of Students, played by the ever wonderful Dennis Haysbert) but, whilst a fine character, is arguably the least interesting/evocative of sympathy, on account of his seemingly greater degree of fiscal and class privilege. His conflicts are by far the most addressed, in my opinion at the risk of the film’s pacing. However, it’s not simply that I feel there are scenes that should have made it to the cutting room floor; rather, I feel certain there are scenes lying on the cutting room floor that could do with re-entry.
The film’s rhythm does leave a little to be desired – whilst we enjoy the company of all the film’s characters, their motivations for suddenly dropping and/or picking up (for want of a better term) “the cause” are left consistently partially obscured. I want to know more about Lionel (Tyler James Williams)’s inner tensions between his Blackness and his queerness that seems to keep him away from the BSU. I want to hear more about Sam’s book, her radio show, her films, her family, her relationship with Troy. I want to see more Coco (Teyonah Parris) in the film just generally – she has nowhere near a big enough role, and the film could have easily done with some tightening up to fit her in. I should add, it’s not just an overabundance of Troy that needs tightening up – there are several filler scenes of Lionel just kinda hanging out that could easily have been done away with in favour of more story and character development. Plus, there was this reality TV plotline that added so little, I’m honestly not sure why it existed, beyond showing off the fabulous Malcolm Barrett?
Still, Dear White People has left me panting for more of a good thing and that is not the same as it being an unsatisfying watch. It is funny, it is righteous, it is angry, it is well-written and deals with serious topics of history, identity, and society, balancing just the right levels of irreverence and clarity to make Dear White People a sophisticated yet unpretentious, didactic yet un-preachy, exceedingly worthy campus social satire.