‘Dear White People’ probes personal, racial identity

“Dear White People” (2014). Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies, Marque Richardson, Malcolm Barrett, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Syvertsen, Brandon Alter, Brian James, Katie Gaulke. Director: Justin Simien. Screenplay: Justin Simien. Web site. Trailer.

Finding our place in the world can be a daunting task, both personally and in our respective peer groups in society at large. This can be especially challenging in racial and cultural contexts, particularly with ever-changing shifts in attitude and relations among various constituencies. And, for those with limited life experience, the task can be confusing, perhaps even overwhelming, as they seek to define their identity, a challenge brought to light with biting wit in the satirical new comedy, “Dear White People.”

“Dear White People” cleverly weaves threads from the lives and relationships of a group of black, white and multiracial students and administrators at Winchester University, a fictional upscale American college loosely patterned after the hallowed halls of an Ivy League institution. Told primarily in flashback format, the film follows the principals through a series of on-campus events leading up to a Halloween party where racially charged tensions explode with consequences that are both troubling and farcical. It thus offers an intriguing, somewhat unorthodox look at a number of important contemporary social issues – and takes no prisoners in doing so.

To say more about the narrative would reveal too much of the plot. But knowing something about the characters would definitely give viewers a sense of what they’re in for:

• Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a mixed-race media arts major and host of an often-inflammatory college radio show titled Dear White People, seeks to find her way in life, both personally and in the world at large. Her multiracial heritage has left her conflicted, however, torn between two cultural sensibilities, an internal struggle evidenced in everything from her taste in music to her taste in men, including two would-be suitors, Gabe (Justin Dobies), a white teaching assistant in the media program, and Reggie (Marque Richardson), a black computer science major and avid supporter of the views she expresses on her radio show.

• Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) seems to have everything going for him. The gregarious, popular African-American political science major seems to be on the fast track for success. He’s also paired to an adoring Caucasian girlfriend, Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), daughter of Winchester’s president (Peter Syvertsen). Troy’s father, the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert), is proud of his son’s many accomplishments, but he demands a lot, too – even if those expectations aren’t necessarily in line with what Troy wants. But, then, dad’s expectations aren’t always driven by simple paternal pride, either; sometimes they’re tied up in his longstanding rivalry with President Fletcher, a contentious relationship that began years before, when the two administrators were Winchester students themselves.

• Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) desperately wants to make a name for herself, but she’s frustrated that her public profile and web video presence are overshadowed by the eminently more popular Ms. White, whom she smugly chastises as “a bougee Lisa Bonet wannabe.” To elevate her public persona, Coco seeks the attention of Helmut West (Malcolm Barrett), a reality TV show producer looking to create a program based on Winchester campus life – one driven by drama and controversy, no matter how incendiary or contrived it might be.

• Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an unfocused undergrad who has yet to declare a major, looks for direction in his college life. The reserved gay sophomore feels like a fish out of water much of the time, not really part of his own community but not really part of mainstream campus society, either. He’s also culturally conflicted, sporting an enormous ʼ70s style Afro while simultaneously professing to like the music of Mumford & Sons and the films of Robert Altman. But, by becoming a writer for the campus newspaper, he begins to find himself (not to mention a potential romantic interest, the paper’s white editor, George (Brandon Alter)). How it all works out for him, though, depends on what Lionel makes of his opportunities.

• Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of the aforementioned university president, fancies himself a prototypical BMOC. As the editor of Pastiche, Winchester’s highly influential humor magazine, Kurt is a raucous, loud-mouthed party animal who believes he can get away with just about anything (mainly because he knows dad will bail him out if trouble arises). Unfortunately, Kurt’s lack of discretion extends to expressing his opinion, too, something that increasingly gets him in hot water when it comes to matters of race and sexual orientation. But, then, none of this should really come as a surprise, since he’s also the one chiefly responsible for organizing the ill-fated Halloween party.

The mix at work here is quite a volatile one, to say the least. And, as all of the elements blend together, the students of Winchester University are setting themselves up for some notoriety – and consequences – they can’t even begin to fathom.

Given the film’s subject matter, the question of beliefs comes squarely front and center, and that’s significant not only for the picture’s exploration of its core social issues but also for its metaphysical underpinnings. Considering that our beliefs dictate the manifestation of our reality through the conscious creation process, it’s easy to see how the various characters experience existences directly in line with their particular thinking.

In light of the movie’s central premise, this is obviously most apparent when it comes to matters of race relations and racial identity. For instance, those who believe they see racism at every turn will experience a reality commensurate with such beliefs. By contrast, those who are convinced that such views are overblown or overly intellectualized observations will find their existence characterized accordingly. In either case, these varying viewpoints aren’t intended to suggest that one outlook is necessarily any more “correct” than another; they both merely point to the differing beliefs that fostered their respective materializations in the first place.

However, in many ways, the characters’ struggles with racial identity issues are a pretext to some deeper, metaphysically oriented matters. In seeking to define their views on these questions, the students are also seeking to define themselves as individuals and the nature of their respective realities. These pretextual considerations lead the characters to ask themselves questions like, “Who am I, really?” Their beliefs, of course, will help to provide the answers, not only for the surface issues addressed in the film, but also for the much more personal questions that lurk within the consciousness of each character. And that can be quite a learning experience, as they each discover for themselves.

Given the learning experience nature of the story line, it’s only fitting that the narrative play itself out on a college campus, a haven for healthy debate and personal exploration of a host of topics, including those examined in the film. Of course, the academic environment, as a place of open discussion, makes it possible to explore these topics from a variety of angles, including everything from the noblest of enlightened dissertations to the shallowest, most cynical, most hypocritical, most self-serving belief stances.

One might easily question the breadth of such discourse, given that it may engender some “distasteful” notions. But, in true conscious creation fashion, the “universe-ity” environment makes it possible for all viewpoints to be addressed, no matter how politically incorrect some of them might seem. Now, this is not to suggest an implied endorsement of some of those less open-minded viewpoints (regardless of who endorses them), but it is a defense of the right for them to be aired, heard and debated. After all, conscious creation places all options on the table, all of which have their own intrinsic validity and their own rightful claim to expression, no matter how far out of fashion some of them may fall. And, in the film’s exploration of such matters, it doesn’t hesitate to probe them all, praising those with merit, deriding those that are questionable and unabashedly poking holes in all of them where warranted, regardless of how seemingly well intentioned (but inadvertently misdirected) some of them may be.

Exercises in self-exploration like those depicted here benefit immensely when approached with the aid of certain attitudes. For instance, taking on this task courageously often yields more satisfying results and produces desired outcomes more quickly. But those who allow their thinking to be clouded by fear or doubt are likely to stay stuck in place longer, as many of Lionel’s experiences illustrate, for example. However, those who step up forthrightly and without fear, as often happens with Troy, are likely to see their desires manifest more expeditiously. Now, this is not to suggest that no one ever backslides, either; we all make “mistakes” as part of our learning curve. Troy’s dealings with his father, for instance, sometimes cause him to back down and compromise his values. But, then, such incidents subsequently help to empower him, galvanizing his faith in his beliefs and making it possible for him to move forward with greater courage and confidence.

It also helps if we approach this task from a sense of personal integrity, for it promotes outcomes that are genuinely in line with our core being. But, while we’re learning our life lessons, as often happens when we’re still of college age, we might not always be able to identify our beliefs as clearly as they need to be. We may even convince ourselves that we’re being entirely sincere with ourselves when nothing could be further from the truth. However, by experimenting with our manifesting beliefs, we give ourselves an opportunity to work through the clutter and come ever closer to personal awareness. Such experiences, again, might be viewed as mistakes, but, instead, they should be seen as exercises in honing our skills as conscious creators. And what better place to learn how to be oneself than in the relative safety of a university setting, an environment that, at least theoretically, encourages us to robustly engage in such experimentation and exploration.

When all of the dust settles in scenarios like those depicted in the film, it becomes painfully apparent that divisive outlooks get us nowhere, regardless of how justified we might feel in buying into them. No matter how these outlooks may be clothed, they ultimately speak to a sense of selfishness and separation when, in fact, we’re all inherently and undeniably connected. This shortcoming is often drawn into sharp focus when viewed through the lens of race relations, especially when they’re strained, as they often are in this picture. However, the sooner we realize our intrinsic linkage to one another, the sooner we can move past these limitations and become everything we can be as one united people, no matter what our racial makeup.

“Dear White People” is a smartly satirical look at these issues, drawing upon an approach that’s very much in your face but that never goes over the top, successfully resisting the temptation to adopt a soapbox stance. Filmmaker Justin Simien, named one of Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch,” has come up with a winning formula in his first feature outing, producing a picture that’s well directed, nicely paced and capably edited while getting the most out of a cast of talented, up-and-coming performers. The film is generally well written, despite some occasional lapses into overly intellectualized dialogue, but that drawback is more than compensated for by its ample poignant laughs and razor sharp insights. As the winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, “Dear White People” is easily one of the best (and most underrated) releases of the year.

As we enter adulthood, we take our rightful places as individuals and in society at large. We have a wide range of choices available to us in doing so, and it’s in our best interests to choose wisely, for the decisions we make about which beliefs to embrace can have far-ranging implications. Just ask those in the university communities identified in the closing credits who underwent experiences of their own not unlike those depicted in the film. Suddenly, the abstract becomes startlingly real – and eminently disturbing. The cautionary tale served up in “Dear White People” should give us all pause to think about who we are, what values we seek to embrace and what kind of world we want to create for ourselves.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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