Race relations is not an issue often tackled in cinema but this film, set at Winchester University in America, does just that. Sam White, played by Tessa Thompson, is a mixed race film student frustrated by recent racist transgressions on campus. She begins to gain attention with her razor edged radio show; Dear White People. We open to Sam declaring that the amount of black friends required to not be considered racist has now been raised to 2. Making a much needed comment on a common phrase “I’m not racist one of my mates is black.”
The ensemble cast is gradually introduced to us as we see Sam go up against Troy Fairbanks, son of the Dean, for head of house. The house in question, Armstrong/Parker house, is traditionally an exclusively black residence, however since the passing of a random housing act by the University this status is threatened. Troy is well on his way to graduate summa cum laude and become a lawyer, but he harbours ambitions to be a comedy writer. In order to do this he must gain the respect of the University president’s son and his girlfriend’s brother. The camera portrays him as playing a role that his father wants him to play; he seems relieved when he first loses the election.
A quiet lead in for the film come sin the shape of Lionel Higgins played with social awkwardness by Tyler James Williams. He is a black and gay student who fits no stereotypes of either. He’s caught a drift in a sea of friendship groups that, due to predetermination, only have one slot dedicated to someone of his race or sexuality.
The fourth and final student that makes up the ensemble driving the film is Colandrea “Coco” Connors. Her dream is to be a reality TV star but the producer who is on campus for casting is more interested in Sam because she would be more popular for audiences. Coco has an issue with the “witty light-skinned black girl” who is stealing her limelight.
The director Justin Simien has made a film that’s less about race as an issue that black people have to face. It’s a film about identity and how the roles we play aren’t always chosen. They can be thrust upon us by pushy parents, peer pressure and of course racial stereotyping. Sam even has her position as a radical challenged because she likes Taylor Swift. The film has strong dialogue that raises issues to the audience and may even stoke a fire, not only that but can land some hilarious jokes. It’s at it’s most effective when Simien uses the camera. When the camera follows Lionel looking out onto the University green examining groups and imagining a way he could fit in, to no avail. It conveys the theme strongly and immediately we understand the characters position within the theme.
Cleverly constructed the film makes direct attacks at the institution that naturally flow in the dead pan, low-key but hilarious dialogue. It’s smartly put together and constantly twists the situation in ways that recall the civil rights movements of the 50s. When Kurt Fletcher the pastiche writer and head of house for Brechet is kicked out of the Armstrong/Parker house. Also when Sam is challenged for the pigeon-holing that can be found in her self published book Ebony and Ivy.
The title of the film is more controversially proactive than the film itself. The film certainly provokes but not confrontation; it provokes thought. The film has been criticised for lacking a bite; a Spike Lee edge. The Spike Lee comparisons are accurate but somewhat lazy, there are some beats you’d see in a Lee production but it’s completely it’s own film. The atmosphere is similar to a Kubrick film, there’s an unexpected abundance of classical music used in the film and the cinematography creates a cold environment, like a warmth has been purposefully dampened. Do The Right Thing blared with Fight The Power from the opening credits to the close and was a bright exuberant palate.
Simien’s film would not have benefited from being more antagonistic it will leave people thinking about the world around them and how it affects them or how it affects other people. It will breed empathy rather than fight.