Dear White People: Justin Simien Delivers a Smart Send-Up of College Racism

Dear White People Official Trailer

Dear White People… and black people and Asian people, Hondurans and everything in between: Dear White People is a movie. A very good movie that made me both laugh and think too hard.

Directed by newcomer Justin Simien, a former publicist/marketing specialist turned filmmaker, Dear White People is a satire exploring race relations in modern society using a posh fictional Ivy League school as a backdrop.

Don’t let my brief summation fool you, this movie is easy to chew, but harder to swallow: The genius lies in its ability deliver head-spinningly complicated issues in subtle and often funny ways. Each of the characters is sorting through their own complicated parental, social and academic issues compounded by race in the predominately white university.

Multi-protaganist, the plot launches with Sam White, a young woman who has taken a leadership role in the Black Student Union. Her response to modern racism is to launch her own podcast and booklet titled “Dear White People”.

The movie succeeds in showing how racism today often takes subtle, more subversive forms and how challenging it is for young black youth to figure out where they fit in and what stance (if any) they should take. Self and race identity don’t always fit so nicely together.

In fact, the beauty of Simien’s film is that it addresses the age old theme of identity crisis but manages to do so in a way that is entirely fresh and engaging right down to its  cinematography, stylized delivery and of-the-moment Pinterestable graphic design transitions.


Tyler James Williams in the film’s impactful promo poster

Although the movie is not absolute and total perfection, its hard to believe its a first feature film effort with how masterful Simien is not only as a director, but writer and producer. He is helped along by a well-balanced cast, most of whom are trained and experienced, yet still relatively unexposed. No one stood out over anyone else–a good thing, but a particular favorite of mine was Teyonah Parris’ Coco or Colandrea. You may recognize Teyonah as Donald Draper’s secretary in Mad Men. Here she gets to display the full range of her talents in a complex role.

My newly liberated evenings thanks to my scary ass launch into the freelance world allowed me to attend a special Los Angeles Times Indie Focus screening of Dear White People hosted by L.A. Times staff writer Mark Olsen with a Q&A session afterward with the director and three of the cast members.

In the Q&A, Simien divulged that he was inspired by movies like Election, Fame, School Days, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and especially Network. It was also a chance to tell his own story. Simien went onto say that he was never able to really see his own experience on the screen. “…racism is more covert now…I wanted to tell a very particular black experience…[one of the] bobbing and weaving around other people’s perceptions of you.”

Dear White People is striking a chord. It won the Special Jury Award for “Breakthrough Talent” at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and Simien was recently named among the “10 Directors to Watch” in Variety magazine.

It’s disturbing that racism is still alive–executed by the hapless, ignorant and malicious alike. But what is so unusual about Dear White People is the humorous and human way in which it is exposed: with a gentle hand, in a way it’s a love letter–gently prodding people to open their eyes.

Even in its most heightened exposure of racism: a themed party where white students are dressing up as black students– there is room for a laugh or two.

What was more disturbing were the real snapshots in the end credits of the movie of several recent racially themed parties at truer-than-fiction universities.

While across the U.S. a more diverse culture is welcomed, a subversive reaction to it dives further underground. In one deft move/movie, Justin Simien exposes a raw nerve: still pinched after all these years.

Dear White People opens in limited release to theaters on October 17th

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