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Dear White People is not as offensive as it looks, nor is it as complex as some may want it to be.
Review (with Spoilers)
Whenever I see a film which is either geared toward Black people or has a Black majority cast, it is always an awkward experience. Solely due to the fact that while I’m not a major critic or anything, more so a media advisor, at the same time I almost feel internally coerced to say more positive things than negative. If just because it isn’t like films like this come around often. But, with that said, let’s talk about Dear White People and see if it is worth seeing.
Characters & Story
The focus of the film is split between Sam (Tessa Thompson) trying to keep the Black dorm from integrating; Troy (Brandon P. Bell) trying to impress his father, and eventually find his own path; Colandrea aka CoCo (Teyonah Parris) trying to figure out a way to become a reality show star, while dealing with possible self-hatred; and then there is Lionel (Tyler James Williams) who is just trying to find a place where he belongs on campus. And while each character has their own unique path, beliefs, and background, they all collide when Kurt (Kyle Gallner) finds his home hosting the school’s Halloween party which has a hip-hop theme. One which quickly becomes a problematic depiction of Black Americans and the biggest stereotypes of Black culture.
When it comes to diversity, admittedly Dear White People may not have any of the characters represent someone who is more urban, but when it comes to Bill Cosby certified Black people, you get a decent group. Sam, as noted in the film, is similar to Lisa Bonet on The Cosby Show; Troy is very much like a young Barack Obama, weed smoking and all; Coco represents someone who knows she is Black, but has issues in regards to what is expected from Black people, as well as dating Black men; and then there is Lionel who is this quiet, gay, nerdish type.
Switching from characters, and focusing on story, the movie make sure there are plenty laughs throughout the saga of Sam trying to keep her dorm black, as Troy tries to impress Kurt, and I’m sure Black audience members, especially if they have gone to a white majority college, will strongly relate to one of the characters offered above. For whether you are like Lionel and trying to figure out what is Black enough to possibly have acceptance; are like CoCo and am trying to have it all, and become relevant on the world’s stage; are like Sam and have a need to fight injustice; or are like Troy and am just trying to work the system; each of their stories provide insight into the lives of Black people, what makes them laugh or frustrated, and ultimately tries to develop the idea that the frustrations you often see on Tumblr or Twitter aren’t petty or overreactions.
As much as I’m sure the film is supposed to be thought provoking, I honestly didn’t think it hit home. For while Sam, as seen in various clips and the trailer online, gives a proper version of racism, does multiple “Dear White People” messages, and presents herself as a revolutionary, at the end of the day I don’t see the “gentle poke” director Justin Simien is looking for. Now, it could be because I’m Black so nothing he says in the film is new to me but, at the same time, I just don’t feel like this film is a conversation starter past whatever offense someone may feel due to the title.
Then, when it comes to the story, I feel like Simien’s attempt at showing a diverse group of Black people just didn’t work as it should. For, as I have said in so many reviews, there are always those who seem like they get the short end of the stick for whatever reason. And, to me, Thompson and Bell’s characters are the only ones who actually present something interesting, if just because they are on polar sides. As for Coco and Lionel, I feel we don’t get to explore all the issues Lionel has with being a Black guy who isn’t strongly into what is considered “Black Culture” i.e. anything dealing with urban culture or even the music genres Black people tend to dominate like R&B and Hip-Hop. Then, when it comes to CoCo, with her growing up in an urban area, rejecting her people and culture to a point, and us getting the sense, at first, she has issues with self-hatred, again you see a character deserving of a story getting jipped due to being part of an ensemble. Thus making the film seem like it stuffed characters into it for representation, but didn’t really plan for all of them to be given full-fledged lives and have them explored.
Overall: TV Viewing
The good thing about this film is that it does leave you wanting more, the bad thing is, it doesn’t necessarily leave you wanting more from this universe Simien created. If anything, it leads to me hoping that Spike Lee does eventually find himself making a School Daze 2, or even us seeing a remake of A Different World which perhaps is still focused on a historically Black college, but one which is dealing with integration, amongst other issues. For at the end of the day, while Simien’s effort may get people talking, I don’t think it is the audience he is looking for that will be talking. If anything, I believe he will find Black audiences praising the film, and while white people will see it, there won’t be any sort of cultural shift or serious dialog. For the movie, at the end of the day, more presents itself as entertainment than anything that could be considered thought provoking. That is unless you consider yourself a social justice warrior.