I walked into Dear White People looking for validation. I couldn’t wait to laugh at its satirical take down of ignorant white people, and I was looking for a movie that aligned with my anger over how people of color are treated today. Instead, I found DWP to be a contemplative film about the stereotypes that exist and the roles we are forced to play.
These days, it seems like the only movies with Black people in starring roles are about civil rights or slavery, as if the Black experience ended in 1965. If not that, it’s a Tyler Perry movie, which leans toward minstrelsy and regurgitates outdated ideas about gender relations. This is dangerous because — believe it or not — there are people whose only experience with Black people (whether purposeful or not) is what they see on TV or in movies.
DWP, from first-time director Justin Simien, announced its intention to complicate things by having a biracial protagonist. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a college student and aspiring filmmaker who feels like she has to choose between her white heritage and her Black heritage. She even goes so far as to change her hair in an attempt to play more to the "Black militant" role she thinks people expect of her.
But, DWP doesn’t take a side. It critiques a flawed system that favors tacked-on, lazy band-aids for racial diversity issues. It critiques uniformed people who don’t care about how they participate in the system. It critiques the way we so easily turn on our own when they do not behave the way we think is right.
Sam isn't alone in trying to figure out where she belongs. DWP also tells the story of preppy Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the politically minded son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haybert), who is starting to chafe under the pressure to rise above the stereotypes of young Black men; CoCo Conners (Teyonah Parris), who wants to be famous on her own merits, not because she plays into racial tropes; and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), who is paralyzed by his inability to fit in anywhere — not feeling Black enough to be considered Black, but still too much of an Other to fit in with the white kids.
It's heartbreaking to watch the way these characters try to cope with so many forces telling them what they’re supposed to be and how they’re supposed to act. But, what's truly refreshing about DWP is that these are different Black characters than we normally get to see. They’re well-rounded people who are motivated by more than just race, unlike the side characters or inspirational historical footnotes in most movies. We need to see more Black women like Sam and CoCo, characters who work hard to define exactly who they want to be and what they want from others. These women aren’t the man-eaters, sassy friends, magical Negroes, or troubled youths fighting the odds that we see time and time again in pop culture.
The villains in DWP aren't typical either. It's easy to simply see the white characters as the bad guys, but they aren't really. They're not evil; they're just clueless and defensive. But, it's chilling how much they resemble people we know.
It's thanks to the realism of the characters that DWP has the potential to educate audiences about racism in America in a way that is both light-handed and accessible. The story humanizes Black people and doesn’t stereotype them. It doesn't offer simple solutions to these problems, but it does get people thinking and — hopefully — talking about these issues.
Audiences of all ages and races need to see DWP. They need to learn that racism is still alive and well in the United States, and it thrives even on the most liberal college campuses. While it's wonderful that Simien's movie is groundbreaking and thought-provoking, it's not enough for Hollywood to just release one realistic film about black people. Dear White People is special because of its content and the color of its cast. And, while that’s wonderful, it's time we live in a world where this is just par for the course.