Film review: Dear White People (2014)

I watched this much-talked about film recently. It was interesting but not quite what I expected. I expected a more biting comedy about the kinds of racial tensions that exist on elite college campuses that seek to have a diverse student body and yet struggle to make minorities feel welcome, making mistakes that are can be awkward, patronizing, and cringe-inducing. It is something that the college I work at also struggles with.

The film undoubtedly had elements of that tension but it was actually more about young people’s search for identity, trying to figure out who they are and where they belong, and whether they need to identify with any particular group in order to be accepted. These are important issues for that age group, those leaving behind adolescence but not yet adults, and coming of age in complex and diverse societies.

The lead character Sam White (played by Tessa Thompson) is majoring in media studies and is the daughter of a white father and a black mother who is torn between the two cultural influences she experiences in her own family and feels that she has to highlight the black part and downplay the white part. The most interesting character to me was Lionel Higgins (well played by Tyler James Williams) as a nerdy, literary, quiet, black student with a huge Afro hairstyle who is not sure about his sexual identity, who wants to be both left alone while at the same time feeling lonely, seeking to make friends while not doing it the easy way by staying at the black dormitory or join the black student groups. His difficulty in figuring out who he is was for me the most interesting aspect of the film.

I think the problem for me with the film was that it layered in too many unnecessary plot complications and this made the focus a little too diffuse. For example the college president is white and the dean of students is black. They were both students during the same years at the same college where they now work, with the dean graduating with honors while the president barely scraped by. The president’s daughter is now a student who is dating the dean’s son (also a student) and the president’s son (also a student) is the head of some kind of society that the dean’s son want’s to join. All that interweaving of families was implausible and it was not clear to me how it advanced the plot much, other than give the dean and the president communication channels through their own children as to what was going on amongst the students.

It is the black-themed party thrown by this largely white society that triggers the confrontation (here too there was some confusion about who was doing what) and ends up enabling the main characters to figure out who they are or want to be. The ending was a little too pat but that’s the rule for comedies and is excusable.

Here’s the trailer.

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