When Visual Beauty Goes Rogue

Dear White People (2014)
A Review By Ben Hunter
3½ Out Of 5 Stars


I’m glad it was made.  Even if the story needed a bigger budget and style to support the chosen method of storytelling to address the big issues the film tackles. 


In today’s day and age of social media, losing your identity in a quest to find it can be the theme you find yourself upon.  At the Ivy League of Winchester, first time director Justin Simien captures through the “black lens” the motif of singularity in the messy world of being an adolescence searching for your truth and how messy we can be ourselves in search of it, in his satirical comedy Dear White People, holding the mirror to America. 

We follow 4 black students, Lionel (Tyler James Williams) an introverted, shy, aspiring writer for the campus media outlet all while wanting to be an accepted a gay male. 

Sam (Tessa Thompson), the strong and assertive leader of the Black Student Union, an aspiring filmmaker in the school’s media department, and just wanting the same equality as a minority and not being treated like minorities typically do.  This is all the while feeling the need for forcing the receptivity of others due to her perception of herself as a biracial woman and not to come across as the “angry black woman”. 

Coco (Teyonah Parris), the dark “sistah” who’s tired of the rules due to race yet plays them the best she knows how because she feels that’s how you succeed.  Maybe an interracial relationship will help her become famous? 

Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the scholar, fit athlete who’s following in his father’s footsteps, Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), the Dean of Students at Winchester.  Troy dates a white girl and hears it from all angles from his black peers and even some of his white ones.  He needs the courage to stand up to daddy and find his own identity, yet feel the acceptance of his peers, all while maintaining the “golden child” image and display that he’s well on his way to greatness, just like his father. 

While we relate with our characters, an event on campus is taking shape from the campus magazine.  White students take part in it, this “black face party”, simulating heavily stereotypical behaviors of black culture (an actual event that’s taken place on college campuses creating national news as it does in the film).  But in order to play the game and get ahead in life, some of the black students participate.  Coco needs to MC the event and post updates on her social media accounts thinking this will get her closer to her dream of Hollywood.  Lionel wants to write about it for the newspaper.  So have things gone too far?  Have they gotten out of hand?  When do we lose our identity on the quest to find it? 

I really like how the nature of this story wasn’t of the clear-cut problem/solution breed of stories.  It leaves you wanting to get involved and have the conversations needed to address the issue of being a different face in a different place, of finding your identity, through all lenses and not just the black ones.  I liked how people of all races can connect with these characters and that this film universally translates to all cultures.  Films like this need to be made as they rarely come about, so we definitely need to show our support and make them a welcomed presence in our communities. 

I felt the look of the film hindered it in a sense.  It was beautifully shot, but that made it look bigger than what it was.  The climatic party scene was made to be an immense experience, more so than what was portrayed on screen, a smaller one.  The film really felt like it received a budget not as big as the story needed it to be to make it as powerful as the themes and storylines are themselves.  So in my opinion a different approach was necessary.  Instead of 4 characters, 1 with a B-Story of another would’ve sufficed more sufficiently.  I connected with Sam & Lionel the most, probably more with Lionel than anyone and everyone I went to see the film with said the same that he was the one we connect with the most.  Sam was beautifully portrayed as more than just the angry black chick, a good representation of us all that we all are messy and not perfect.  So I kept thinking a story of just these two and how the party takes shape with their lives with some supporting roles of the other players sprinkled in would support this story and strengthen it to the level of perfection that critics make it out to be (an “A” rating, almost close to an “A+”).  But there’s a reason why the general public, on the other hand, scored this film a “D”. 

The lingo of this world was intelligent at times with the facts of history and of the culture, which I loved and needed to see again to grasp completely.  Yet with the multiple characters and plot points that needed to happen to support those characters and events taking shape to shape this story, I kind of felt lost with some of the relationships between characters and story points and even received a sense of “amateurism” with the construction of this world within Winchester.  When Dean Fairbanks is disgusted with his son, I was observing instead of experiencing and crying in fear of the lost love between a father and son.  I just kept thinking, especially at this part, that I wanted a much better woven and constructed world.  The look of the film, the reduction of budget, to ease a simpler take on a bigger problem would’ve been that solution in my opinion.  Which is a shame because writer/director Justin Simien spent almost a decade on the script. 

With the way this story was beautifully filmed and BRILLIANTLY marketed, I kept expecting a faster paced, bigger scenes with crowds of actors, commercial-like film.  Yet, an “artistic”, lower budget, grainy film look, with very few actors per scene is what was needed in my opinion, hence the amateur feeling. 

Yet I’m glad the story is being told and making an impression on society.  We need more stories that do this in our day and age.  To ask the tough questions yet not proceed with such line up in a “preachy” manner. 

Dear White People
Comedy, 100 Minutes, R
Written & Directed by: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Marque Richardson, & Dennis Haysbert

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