Satirical “Dear White People” Uses Laughter as Weapon
By Skip Sheffield
One of the best ways to fight racism is with humor, and in particular, satire.
“Dear White People” is a satire about racism on the college campus. It won writer/director Justin Simien Sundance Film Festival’s 2014 Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The timing is certainly right, for the key climactic scene takes place at a Halloween costume party.
The setting is fictitious Winchester University, presumably somewhere in the South. Winchester is a private school filled with wealthy, white snobs, jocks and frat boys. The four main characters are “token” black people admitted to help the school fill its minimum of minority students so donors could pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant.
Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) is the most militant, activist member of the group- never afraid to speak out against perceived injustices. Perhaps not ironically she has the lightest skin. In the days before political correctness she would have been known as a mulatto. It can also be an insult.
Sam’s male counterpart is Troy Fairbanks, a handsome, ambitious, seemingly ideal guy who secretly has some bad traits that may get in the way of his desire to be class president.
Colandra “Coco” Conners is a sexy, gregarious woman who makes her views known on a public “Vlog” (video blog).
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is the closest thing to an everyman character- that is if everyman had a bushy, towering Afro hairdo straight out of 1968.
In case we miss these characters are types, the director labels and defines them at the start of the story. Then he goes on to confound those stereotypes.
The white characters are for the most part stereotypes too, except for Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), editorial of the school paper who has liberal tendencies. We will see how liberal as the story unfolds.
The two main authority figures are Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), a man who seems equally wise to the ways of white and black people, and President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen), whose main concern is keeping benefactors happy.
It seems like race relations haven’t improved much since I was a college student, eons ago. At least with this film we have Justin Simien shining a light in dark corners and saying “Hey people, these things still exist,” yet with the beneficial balm of humor.