Director Justin Simien’s Dear White People explores contemporary college racism and the effect that discrimination can have not only on individual morale, but also on the collective spirit of a university. KINO presented the film in the Hunt Room of the MacVittie College Union on Friday April 8. Dear White People tells the story of students dealing with racism across their campus at Winchester University. Biracial college student Sam White—played by Tessa Thompson—hosts a radio broadcast called “Dear White People” that criticizes white college students and faculty for their racist assumptions and comments.
Tensions already run high at the prestigious Winchester University, where black students like Sam are divided in a segregated manner. The dining halls and dormitories are all separated by race. Furthermore, the college only has one hall for the black students—the Armstrong and Parker house. This segregation generates an acute division among students of different cultures throughout the campus.
Sam is a strong-willed and fearless student who challenges this division with her controversial radio show, as well as through her thought-provoking films. Black, gay college writer Lionel Higgins—played by Tyler James Williams from “Everybody Hates Chris”—also explores this division on campus when he is assigned by his editor to write a story on Sam and her actions of resistance.
Fellow black student Troy Fairbanks—played by Brandon Bell—develops his own strategy in dealing with the racism he faces as he attempts to rise in power and become head of the Armstrong and Parker house. But racism isn’t the only struggle Troy is dealing with; he also faces unyielding pressure from his father, Dean Fairbanks—played by Dennis Haysbert—as he pushes his son to pursue this leadership role.
Sam runs against Troy and ends up winning the election for head of the house, causing hostility across the campus to escalate. Sam gets little respect from anyone on campus—including faculty and staff members—and the backlash from her peers for winning this role is immense.
The strain on campus finally erupts when Kurt Fletcher—son of the school’s president, played by Kyle Gallner—and his club throws a blackface-themed party in response to Sam’s radio show. After finding out about the highly controversial theme, a group of black students—Sam, Lionel and friends—show up to the party to disband it, spurring outrage and violence amongst the students.
Dear White People was created in response to a large amount of controversially-themed parties that have occurred on college campuses across the United States in recent years. For example, Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity held a “Martin Luther King Black Party” in 2014 and Penn State’s Chi Omega sorority held a “Mexican Party” in 2012. Both parties involved students dressing and stereotyping each respective race and involved the students sharing pictures across social media, catching the attention of the media nationwide.
Simien’s film weaves together contemporary racial issues among students and staff, bringing attention to the larger problem of systemic racism that plagues our society. The wit and brilliance that characters like Sam convey presents a refreshing and poignant angle on racism in the country. With social media platforms keeping record of almost everything college students are doing across the nation, it goes to show that while racism prevails among universities today, students like Sam can inspire change.