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Film Review: Dear White People

Posted By Colleen Bunn, Miami University, Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Film Review by Keith Wise, SSV Hall Director at Illinois Institute of Technology

In the summer of 2012, a trailer for a proposed Indiegogo film titled Dear White People arrived on YouTube. During this same year, college campuses were in heavy debate on whether President Barak Obama’s second election to the Office of President signaled a true post-racial America. Now, three years later, the landscape of colleges and universities has been changed by protest and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the Eric Garner trial in New York City, and the SAE Fraternity situation at Oklahoma University. How can a film explain the feelings and thoughts of our residents during times like this? Well, there is a film that came out in October of 2014 that reflects the emotions of the current times.   

The film Dear White People is a satire about the experience of being a minority at a predominantly white institution today. The challenges that each character encounters offer an exceptional look at what it means to be a student in the supposedly post-racial America. The film brings up several different micro-aggressions that minority students go through in a comedic matter. The light hearted nature of some of the early scenes of the film help to set up the more thought provoking questions that arise from the latter half of the film. A good film relies on the development of its core characters. Director and writer Justin Simien uses comedy as a way to start the discussion on race relations on college campuses. In addition to that, Simien deals with a variety of minority student challenges going on at college campuses today. Simien uses the core characters of the film to address race relationship by identifying some of the challenges of African American students in particular.

The main characters Sam, CoCo, Lionel, and Troy, represent four distinct aspects of the African American experience in college. Sam is a biracial student who struggles with how to define both sides of her culture and being in a biracial relationship. Colandrea, or, as she prefers in the film, CoCo, appears as a person who is only interested in fame and wealth, and does not care about self-pride. Lionel is a new student who does not seem to fit into any of the stereotypical ideas of African American culture nor caucasian culture and is learning to accept his sexuality. Finally there is Troy, whose father is the dean of the college, and has to balance keeping up his presumed “perfect” African American male persona or following his true passion to write jokes for Saturday Night Live. Each of these characters has a large amount of pressure to define what being African American is to them. Throughout the film, each character is asked to pick a side and shape their experience on that decision. The results of each characters coming of age helps to push the story and give insight to an audience who may not be familiar with those African American college experiences. A valuable lesson can be taken from each of the characters final decisions, where they ultimately decide to not let their surroundings define them, but rather create their own story. These stories are similar to what some of our minority students face daily on college campuses across our nation.

Residents today are facing difficult challenges daily in reference to race & culture. Power and privilege play heavily into their lives as minority college students and this film illustrates that clearly. Two other characters, Sam & Kurt, are two clear representations of power & privilege.  Kurt is a caucasian character whose father is the president of the college. Kurt does not need to be an excellent student because his family comes from wealth and he is guaranteed success when he graduates because of that wealth. Sam’s character is a brilliant film student who is nearly expelled for her protesting on campus and radio show comments. Sam’s success is based on her ability to do well academically but she also judged and punished by her opinions which stunt her creativity. These two characters are the faces of some of our residents who come from diverse backgrounds and are not able to get along because of those differences. These are some of the first roommate conflicts we all see each spring. Diversity training every year focuses on how to get these types of students to come to grips with their differences and learn from each other. However, power and privilege still blinds some students from being able to appreciate differences within each other. This is where this film succeeds in helping us start the discussion on embracing different cultures and ideas.

Films like Dear White People allow the audience to create dialogue on the topic on race relations. Each character’s story opens up the doors to explore and question what the minority experience in college today truly is. The large variety of character stories grabs the audience attention and allows them to see different perspectives on the African American experience. It also opens up the door to discuss how power and privilege affect our students on a daily basis. After seeing this film with some of the Black Student Union members here at Illinois Institute of Technology, the film made me want to jump directly into dialogue about their experiences and any similarities they had to the students in the film. In writing this review I can only remember the excitement I had to hear great dialogue from my residents & student affairs colleagues after seeing the film. I believe this film is just what our college campuses need during this time of protest and debate.

Overall Grade: 4/5- Solid story, memorable characters, and thought provoking situations are the best way to sum up Dear White People. This film is definitely one you need to show your students to create the positive and important dialogue we need to have with students when it comes to race relations.

Tags:  dear white people  film review  race 

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