FilmIFFBostonReview

IFFBoston: “Dear White People” Uses Clever Comedy to Explore Concepts of Race

Alexis Bradley ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Still from Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Sundance Institute.
Still from Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Sundance Institute.

Over the past year, there have been multiple films that address the concept of race in the Indie and mainstream circuit, such as The Butler and Fruitvale Station. None, however, have had the same controversial but enlightening voice reminiscent of Spike Lee or the quirk of Wes Anderson.

Dear White People was written and directed by Justin Simien, an up-and-coming filmmaker. The film follows the stories of characters that represent different masks that people of color put on when placed in a predominantly white environment—in this case, a private liberal arts school. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is the radical one with the radio show titled “Dear White People.”

Coco (Teyonah Parris) is the one who adapts and wears long weaves and blue contacts in order to be mainstream enough to become famous. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is the dean’s son who doesn’t want to rock the boat and thus ruin future opportunities. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams), is the inspiring gay reporter and observer trying to understand where he fits into black culture.

Still from Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Sundance Institute.
Still from Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Sundance Institute.

The film culminates in a Halloween party appropriating “black” culture with stereotypes. This party is conceived by an influential on-campus comedy troupe as a way to get back at Sam’s forceful radio show. It proves to be the climax of the film, where the characters come to grips with their roles in creating the party and how to deal with it during and after its initiation.

In the beginning of the film, the characters are all trying to fulfill an identity. However, we see those roles being questioned by the end. They’re not really being true to themselves. With these archetypes, Simien hoped to address the universal concept of identity. But instead of incorporating the somber tone so often accompanied with movies that deal with race, Simien took a more comedic route and succeeded for the most part. It’s actually clever, especially with some of its satirization.

In Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, he often paints black stereotypes of his characters using humor that isn’t smart or innovative. The humor is all in the spectacle, and turns black culture into a thing to be laughed at instead of respected. Dear White People has a Wes Anderson vibe, with zoom-ins and characters being introduced with title cards. It points out and laughs at the archetypes and nuances usually attributed to black culture, but in a way that doesn’t demean it.

Still from Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Sundance Institute.
Still from Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Sundance Institute.

Despite featuring four characters, Simien stated during his interview after the screening that there were originally seven total in his first draft, and that explains much of how the film falters. The creator had so many ideas and issues that he wanted to explore that they all feel squeezed into one coherent plot. The audience is never really given time to reflect before being swept off into another problem within society. However, the excellent use of comedy makes up with for it, along with great acting.

It’s inspiring to see black filmmakers garnering this much success. The theater was packed at the screening, and most of the audience came to the festival just to see this one film. It proved, as The Cosby Show did in the eighties, that audiences want to see movies with black protagonists that go beyond Tyler Perry-style humor, and force the viewer to laugh while also questioning why they’re laughing. Instead of simply stating that racism is bad, Dear White People highlights the idea of identity in race and the all-too-prevalent stereotypes in the media.

Overall Grade: B+

Watch The Trailer:

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