College is traditionally a time when we're allowed to experiment, try on different personas, and generally attempt to figure out what type of person we ultimately want to become. It's also the first time many of us are truly on our own and most of us take advantage of that in every way we can. We leave the judgments and expectations of high school only to be confronted with the judgments and expectations of a whole new set of peers. All this makes a college campus the perfect environment for "Dear White People," a sharp, smart satire that takes aim at our collective ideas of identity, race, sexuality, and privilege in a supposedly "post-racial" society.
The feature debut of writer-director Justin Simien, "Dear White People" uses its collegiate setting to examine the racial tensions at the fictional Winchester University, an Ivy League school with a mostly white student body. The film follows the experiences of four black students as they struggle with "being a black face in a white place." Sam (Tessa Thompson) is the host of the campus radio show from which the film gets its title, using the platform to dole out sardonic bits of wisdom and lecture the student body on the hypocrisy, micro-aggressions, and covert racism constantly faced by black students. Meanwhile, Sam conceals her ongoing relationship with a white T.A. (Justin Dobies). Coco (Teyonah Parris) has aspirations of finding fame in reality television, but her tendency to downplay her "blackness" in order to better assimilate on campus backfires when she's told by a visiting TV producer that she isn't black enough. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the privileged son of Winchester's dean (Dennis Haysbert), who's being groomed by his father to follow in his footsteps. Finally, there's Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a shy, gay writer who, as a minority within a minority, finds himself an outcast among both groups.
"Dear White People" has a lot on its mind -- if anything, it suffers from an overabundance of ideas -- as Simien uses these distinct personalities to explore the central theme of identity (racial and otherwise), showing the ways in which the characters are forced to walk a tightrope, balancing the persona they're expected to present in public with how they behave behind closed doors. The film's fantastic ensemble of actors are pitch-perfect, rounding out their characters and making them feel like intelligent, fully-realized people with their own sets of flaws and vulnerabilities.
Even with its intellectual aspirations, the film never feels like a college thesis, sidestepping any sense of preachiness by being hilarious. It also isn't an indictment of any particular group -- save perhaps the ignorant few who believe race isn't an issue in America. Puckish and playful, Simien knows he's pushing buttons and does so gleefully (witness Sam's priceless explanation about how "Gremlins" is actually a metaphor for white society's fear of black culture), but always with purpose. He doesn't pretend to have any real answers for the questions he raises -- if he did, he'd deserve a Nobel Prize -- but by the time the film reaches its climax at a nightmarish "hip-hop" themed frat party, with white coeds adorned in blackface leering into the camera, you're likely to feel a bit queasy. And as news articles about such real-life incidents on campuses across the country pop up over the film's end credits, it's hard to ignore the thought maybe there's no such thing as "post-racial" after all.