I was attracted to this film after hearing an interview with the writer and director Justin Simien on a radio programme. It came back to mind after writing about the book ‘Angry White People’. The film explores racial tensions at an American university but it is more than a look at racism, it is an exploration of identity and belonging. The divisions to be found in the student body do not start and end with race and ethnicity.
Central to the story are Sam and Lionel. Sam is the mixed race student who has a radio show called ‘Dear White People’ which she uses to highlight discrimination from white students and lecturers. She is a fiesty person who manages to upset many around her with her crusading zeal. Lionel is the gay, black student trying to fit in with one group or another. He is an aspiring writer so is thrilled when he is given a place on the student newspaper team. This seems to be the route to acceptance.
Sam is elected to the prestigious role of head of her house and Lionel is given an assignment to write about her. The university administration want to move on from racism, a thing of the past apparently, leading to conflict with Sam. The film builds to a party where students are encouraged to put on ‘blackface’, something I thought was far fetched until I learned that this part is based on real events from more than one university in the USA.
Lionel is the most interesting character. He wants to belong while maintaining some integrity. His sexuality and race are important but so is what we British would call class. He is surrounded by affluent students of all races and has to negotiate university life which the entitled and privileged seem to glide through.
The climax of the film is dramatic but it is Lionel’s story that is the most engaging. ‘Dear White People’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?