Like college students themselves, Dear White People is a little awkward, sometimes confusing and sometimes didactic, but full of fresh ideas and completely endearing. The setting is very specific: a fictional Ivy League campus where “talented tenth” African-American students try to carve a niche for themselves among the school’s (white) traditions.
Each student is assigned to a different house,
meaning dorm, but also something bigger than a dorm. From what I remember of my
tour of UC Santa Cruz, it had a similar system, where each residence hall was
kind of a college-within-a-college, and each had its own vibe and evoked
passionate responses among the students. Kind of like the “houses” in Paris is Burning, except Winchester
University is nothing like UC Santa Cruz or a drag ball.
|Winchester University looks suspiciously like UCLA.|
I dunno. I went to a big public university that technically had “theme floors,” but the only way you’d know that the seventh floor of Dykstra Hall was the “international” floor was if you accidentally wandered into the study hall on the night they showed Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.
|Two colors: Coco and the president's daughter.|
And of course there are the white students—the president’s asshole son who all but dons a pointy hood, and the sensitive film student who encourages Sam to embrace all aspects of herself, especially the part of herself that enjoys sleeping with him. The two white newspaper students who recruit Lionel to write an exposé on campus race relations would be liberal heroes in most movies (which are often made by former-journalism-student types), but here they’re not above putting their hands in the Afro Lionel hides beneath and offhandedly telling him he’s only “technically” black.
|Lionel gives good side eye. Even though the movie sorta implies that white people need to stop saying side eye.|
|Coco is not totally sure why she's putting on a blonde wig.|
As the movie rolls on, the four main characters begin to reject their roles as mouthpieces and slide toward more individualized identities—while still acknowledging the need for a powerful, loud cultural voice. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in a movie or in life.
There aren’t many movies about race. There aren’t many movies aimed at mainstream audiences featuring more than two black characters (meaning that we rarely understand that there might be more than one or two opinions in “the black community”). The title Dear White People is genius. White people can subconsciously think, Oh, cool, it’s about me, just like everything else is.
|Black Student Union (the Asian girl is there for the snacks).|
On our way out of the parking structure, AK and I ranked our favorite characters. Lionel was definitely first, followed by Coco, then Sam, with boring Troy a distant fourth. We were both charmed by Lionel, but AK was almost buoyantly charmed.
“I related to him so much,” she said. “The queer kid of color who doesn’t really fit in anywhere but can kind of pull it together in a pinch? I mean, I’m not into Star Trek, but—”
“You were more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald nerd,” I said.
|Salinger side eye.|