Ashley Blaine Peterson stares into the camera and, with a smirk, puts a pin in the tiresomely enduring racist stereotype that pits fried chicken and watermelon as two foods particularly beloved by black people. “The stereotype about black people loving fried chicken comes from a scene in the KKK propaganda film Birth of a Nation. But everybody loves fried chicken!” she says in a satirical, PSA-styled YouTube video-cum-digital campaign for the film Dear White People. “And did you know that, in modern times, black people eat proportionally less watermelon than white people? But, honestly, no black person has any clue what white people eat. Is it kale? Is kale still a thing?”
The spot is one in a promotional series of 10 called The More You Know (About Black People), designed to “help everyone tackle stereotypes head on.” It’s partly a joke, fundamentally hilarious in that way that makes things funnier ‘cause they’re true. It’s also an accurate approximation of the sharp, cheeky tone of Dear White People, a film whose take on race, identity, and community is rooted in the traditions of Spike Lee and Dave Chappelle. Its ethos, and that of 31-year-old writer, director, and producer Justin Simien, is tied to the notion that we can’t get over race without honestly and critically getting into it first.
Dear White People takes place on the predominantly white campus of a fictional college with an Ivy League-leaning legacy. But what happens at Winchester University is a microcosm of the cruel world beyond its be-crested gates. Winchester’s history of racial tension isn’t particularly unique; in the wider landscape of the American collegiate experience, the school is an everyman. But things are shaken up when Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a media studies student and campus leader whose controversial college radio show gives the film its name, is elected president of a historically black residence hall on the platform that she intends to fight the power.
While Sam and a host of other black undergraduates address on-campus racism, they also grapple with typical college issues: sexuality, social pressures, parental expectations, career aspirations. A handful of storylines intertwine until art imitates life in the worst of ways: a hip hop-themed frat party that is a raucous excuse for unchecked blackface and racial drag, drawn from real-life news items. It hurts ‘cause it’s true.
As the plot unfurls over 100 minutes, edging closer and closer to on-campus riots alluded to in the film’s opening scenes, Dear White People acknowledges that there are as many ways to be black as there are black people, elegantly correcting a fallacy that is one of Hollywood’s most egregious failures. The core tenet is diversity not tokenism, the likes of which is hard to come by in any big-budget project that doesn’t involve Shonda Rhimes; it’s no wonder Simien took to crowdfunding to finance its production.
Dear White People stars multiple black characters with distinct racial and personal identities: Sam, for instance, is a biracial, self-styled agitator who publicly challenges authority but lives in a state of internal turmoil. Lionel Higgins (Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams), is shy, anxious, and on a quest to find his identity in the face of being bullied for being gay; Coco Conners (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris) suppresses her South Side Chicago upbringing in exchange for white acceptance and the promise of fame; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is the dean’s preppy son, who struggles to escape his father’s shadow; Dean Fairbanks (24’s Dennis Haysbert), despite experiencing racism firsthand, wears his respectability politics on his sleeve.
Simien, who eventually won a Sundance special jury award for breakthrough talent, began writing the screenplay seven years ago, about his own undergraduate experience. Yet Dear White People’s most striking quality is how current and relevant it is. Its tone is guided largely by various media—Sam’s radio show, a pair of short films she makes for a media studies class, excerpts from a witty journal called Ebony & Ivy.
When a caller asks Sam how she’d feel if a white student had a radio program that generalized about black people, she doesn’t miss a beat: “Mass media makes it clear what white people think of us,” she quips before hanging up. It’s an exchange that happens all day, every day on so-called black Twitter. Writing in the Washington Post, Soraya Nadia McDonald described the phenomenon as “part cultural force, cudgel, entertainment and refuge.” The amorphous virtual community, among other things, frequently hosts incisive criticism of racism in mainstream media and pop culture. Its members, not all of whom are black, don’t hold back their opinions, expressing themselves in memes, gifs, and a blend of IRL and URL black vernacular. In the process, it has become the smart, witty frontline of a new post-post-racial forum for discourse on issues of politics and identity.
On a recent night, a white man in a New York City bar reached his hands into my hair without permission and asked whether it was real. When I went back to my friends on the other side of the dance floor, I knew they’d understand what made the exchange equal parts offensive, hostile, and rote. I knew my little corner of the Internet would, too. But I didn’t expect a film to do the same. Sam White mirrored my feelings exactly: “Dear white people, please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?” For a black woman whose tastes run counter to Tyler Perry, it’s a rare and glorious thing to feel wholly understood by a film.
Dear White People fits into national and global conversations about race and identity, tackling issues head-on rather than burying them under aphorisms and wishful thinking. Racism no longer comes in the neat, easily identifiable package of white hoods and burning crosses; it has replaced outright racial hatred with subtler practices like unfair housing policies and violent appropriation and dangerous, inescapable stereotypes that leave black people to deal with the messes historically created by whites.
Stripping an entire group of people of the ability to define and present their own identities is among the most insidious features of racism, one that allows for larger structural issues to persist. For all its imperfections, Dear White People is one of few films to acknowledge that.
A movie will not right centuries of wrongs, but laughing about it is a start.