The following review was written by Kinnedy Broughton, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.
What is racism? Who’s capable of it? Can it occur within individuals of the same race? These controversial questions are represented in “Dear White People,” written and directed by Justin Simien, and the 2014 Independent Spirit Award winner for Best First Screenplay. It's a promising satirical film that examines the segregated stereotypes of campus culture.
Simien’s film takes place at Winchester University, a predominantly white, prestigious university where we’re introduced to six significant characters: Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the biracial activist who overcompensates her blackness; Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), the black homosexual who lives in an all-white residence building, and feels little sense of belonging; Colandrea “CoCo” Conners (Teyonah Parris), the white-washed blogger who acknowledges racism yet chooses to ignore it in fear of non-acceptance from the white majority; The Dean (Dennis Haysbert), who has worked hard his whole life solely to over-emphasize his superiority and intelligence towards white corporate men, specifically the president of Winchester; The Dean's son Troy (Brandon Bell), who spends his college career doing things to make his father happy and impress the white majority; and Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the privileged, ignorant son of the President of Winchester.
Unfortunately, these characters are all extremely underdeveloped with no true back story and have obvious predictability. Characters such as Sam White, presented as the fiery activist who sparks elongated intellectual debates, suddenly has her fire put out around the end of the film as if her personality completely changed within a day. Lionel Higgins and Colandrea Conners are both vital characters to the film, yet are completely under-developed. The film gives us the gist of the stereotypes that are supposed to have purpose in the film, yet we really didn’t know much about them. We don’t know what makes Colandrea the way she is, or why she’s embarrassed of her roots. Neither do we know why Lionel loathes labels and the reasoning behind why he can’t fit in with his race or his sexuality.
Simien employs a mix of modern rap and alternative music, which helps manifest the college-themed setting, although it doesn’t mix well, and seems as if the music was simply thrown in the film. The camera angles are amateur. It is distractingly clear that Simien tried to find points whereas to create intricate camera angles, such as the time Colandrea has a conversation with the reality television scout. It is more confusing than unique.
However, as flawed as it may be, the messages connect fairly well. “Tell me man, what's harder, being black enough for the black kids or black enough for the white ones?” This quote parallels Lionel's inability to connect with his own race with Sam’s struggle with her identity as a biracial girl. You also see some slight colorism occur with Colandrea’s insecurity towards her dark skin as she points out while filming her video blog. Colandrea, The Dean and Troy all struggle with receiving white acceptance, yet are in denial about it. It’s clear that they believe the only way to make something of themselves and to seem established is by melding into being something they’re not, loving people they don’t.
“Dear White People” had potential and Simien undeniably conceived an amusing-yet-thought-provoking message for his audience, even if that message is predictable and only hits surface level. If the characters were more developed beyond their stereotypical behaviors, the film could have been an even bigger hit.