‘Dear White People’ is an open letter to all audiences

The 2014 Sundance breakout chips away at social and cultural identity issues

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: “Dear White People” won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance; Rating: R, Grade: A

It is ironic writer-director Justin Simien displays such assurance over material that is so fraught with uncertainty. The subjects up for consideration in “Dear White People” are race and racial identity, with sexual orientation thrown in for bonus complications. Time and again, during the coverage of this film, since its breakthrough premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, talk has revolved around its examination of “black faces in white places”; more specifically, situations when there are only a precious few black faces in those white spaces.

The setting here is a fictional Ivy League university dealing with real-world problems that many assumed would disappear when the country’s first black president ushered in a “post-racial” age. The cast of characters revolves around four basic identity types – Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a pro-black “militant” who broadcasts an underground show called “Dear White People” that puts the mainstream kids and the minorities alike on notice; Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris), a publicity-hungry striver seeking any opportunity to make a new name for herself; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the handsome and privileged scion of a university dean (Dennis Haysbert) with big plans for the future; and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an eager writer, but unfortunate outcast, even among the fractured black “community.”

What Simien aims to and does point out, with a fluid common-sense approach, is that the question of racial identity, while triggered by mainstream society and the need to label and categorize each and every “other” on the scene, creates fissures within said groups that seek to adhere to an absurd notion of a monolithic collectivity in the thoughts and preferences of its members. The assumption is there must be an answer to the query “what does it mean to be black?” while no one dares to seek to define white people in such broad strokes.

The four protagonists by no means receive equal narrative time, but each draws enough dramatic beats for audiences to appreciate the distinctness and complexities of these characters. And, in a clever and somewhat subtle play on race conventions, Simien offers a healthy sample of white characters who serve as social foils for the protagonists, but he never lets the perspective shift too far away from the main narrative thrust. “Dear White People” is a story about black characters struggling to differentiate themselves as black people.

How is the idea of blackness, and the age-old effort to pull oneself up from the lower social, cultural and economic rungs of society, made even more frustratingly difficult when biracial concerns and issues of sexual orientation are injected into the discussion? And what about living in a time when white people believe they not only have the right and privilege of questioning the “blackness” of a person of color, but even dare to claim a higher degree of “blackness” themselves?

Back in the day, Spike Lee carried the film banner for this type of militant racial commentary, and he certainly embraced the militancy with obvious pride in his efforts to be down for the cause. What makes Simien’s film so much more provocative is the understanding of his time and the sense that there are several ways to fight the good fight without sacrificing the less “militant” warriors caught up in the battle.

“Dear White People” rewrites the rules of engagement for both blacks and whites by highlighting the personal toll of the skirmishes and the hope for a shared future that might eventually earn that “post-racial” moniker. That’s the real Promised Land, and I imagine Simien is going to show us a few more examples of what it might look like during his career.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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