“Dear White People” is a razor-sharp, carefully observed film that dips its toes alternately into satire and sobering social drama. This is “you have to laugh, you’ll cry your eyes out if you don’t” kind of humor, and it’s intended to make you uncomfortable as much as it makes you laugh. Or perhaps even more.
Set at an Ivy League school called Winchester (but really seems like a stand-in for Harvard,) this film is about the struggles of black students to find and secure their own identity in that kind of rarified air. The film follows several characters on campus. Brandon P Bell is the son of the dean and head of the primarily African American house on campus, that is, until activist Tessa Thompson wins an election against him, an outcome that surprises them both; she was just trying to stir the pot. Tyler James Williams doesn’t really want to live in that house; he’s a gay Star Trek fan with a three-foot Afro for whom “the worst part of high school was the other black kids.” Instead, he lives in a house with Kyle Gallner, son of the school president, editor of the school humor rag, which regularly feeds writers to Saturday Night Live. He’s the only white lead in the film, and let’s just say he’s not a nice guy. Add to the mix one more character, Teyonah Parris, who wants to be a reality TV star, but finds she has to manufacture racial tension in order to get hits on her YouTube channel, which is in competition with Thompson’s radio show, “Dear White People.”
Did you follow all of that? “Dear White People” is a cut above most films that deal with race because it’s not just about their struggle against a racist system run by whites and favoring white students, though there is plenty of that. It’s also about their struggle with and against each other, a struggle to forge an identity out of (and/or within) their ethnicity, to manage the expectations placed on them as minority students in an elite college, and the effort it takes to reconcile the seemingly contradictory parts of themselves into a single identity. In other words, “Dear White People” takes on an incredibly complex and intricate range of subjects, and handles it with a light touch that occasionally hits like a sledgehammer.