Also based on the director’s own experiences, his protagonist is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), an impassioned, fed up student who presents her popular campus radio show ‘Dear White People’, where she rants, raves and scrutinises over an innate attitude towards black students at an Ivy League college, culminating in the obnoxious classmate Kurt’s (Kyle Gallner), ‘black’ themed party, where people imitate and in most cases, ridicule, black culture. It leaves some students, such as Troy (Brandon P Bell) and Colandrea (Teyonah Parris) to analyse their own identity, as a debate of whether such a party is a sign of progress in that white Americans can make a joke of the situation – or alternatively, if this is severely regressive, and downright insensitive – while Lionel (Tyler James Williams) fervently pursues the story on behalf of the college paper.
Simien’s barbed, yet somewhat playful endeavour comes free of agenda, with several flawed protagonists to ensure each and everybody’s viewpoint can have fallacious tendencies. Of course the casual racism that exists is rightly exposed, but characters such as Samantha are imperfect too, and she can be accused of being reactionary, fighting fire with fire, and at times, even guilty of inciting issues herself. Yet Simien ensures that her reasons are discussed in conversation with other characters – usually her on/off, white boyfriend Gabe (Justin Dobies), to articulately explain her actions and counter any criticisms in an effective manner.
That being said, Dear White People is distinctly uncomfortable to sit through at times, as we take a candid look at a deep rooted issue in American culture. Simien is astute in his conviction, bringing up a variety of issues and talking points and rousing conversation, which is something he should only be commended for. Lionel works as a perfect entry point into this world too. He’s black, but unlike Samantha, not very vocal about his opinions, unsure of how he truly feels – working by way of a cipher of sorts, allowing for the audience to come into this tale with an open mind – even if that can be a rather difficult task when the white students throw their party.
This is certainly an accomplished debut for Simien, provoking a plethora of thoughts, albeit at the cost of a more palpable narrative structure, as we flirt in and out of different character’s lives in an incoherent, unsystematic fashion. Nonetheless, to maintain a sense of joviality and yet be so profound in his message is no easy task, never compromising the severity of the themes explored for a cheap gag.