Dear White People: the new film stirring up racial concerns?



Written by Graeme Wood


Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Justin Simien’s Dear White People opens in America this week and is already causing controversy. The satire which follows a group of African American students as they navigate campus life and amid the racial politics of a predominately white college is a sharp and funny feature debut that put Simien among Variety’s annual ’10 Directors To Watch’

The New York Times’ AO Scott wrote; “seeming to draw equal measures of inspiration from Whit Stillman and Spike Lee, but with his own tart, elegant sensibility very much in control, Mr.Simien evokes familiar campus stereotypes only to smash them and rearrange the pieces”.

The unexpected election of activist Samantha White (Veronica Mars’ Tessa Thompson) as head of a traditionally black residence hall sets up a college campus culture war that challenges conventional notions of what it means to be black. While Sam leverages her notoriety as host of the provocative and polarising radio show ‘Dear White People’ to try to prevent the college from diversifying Armstrong Parker House, outgoing head of house Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), son of the university’s dean (24’s Dennis Haysbert), defies his father’s lofty expectations by applying to join the staff of Pastiche, the college’s influential humour magazine. Lionel Higgins (Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams), an Afro-sporting sci-fi geek, is recruited by the otherwise all-white student  dearwhitepeople3smllnewspaper to go undercover and write about black culture – a subject he knows little of- while the aggressively assimilated Coco Connors (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris) tries to use the controversy on campus to carve out a career in reality TV. But no one at Winchester University is prepared for Pastiche’s outrageous, ill-conceived Halloween party, with its ‘unleash your inner Negro’ theme throwing oil on an already smouldering fire of resentment and misunderstanding. When the party descends into mayhem, everyone is forced to choose a side.

Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris told the New York Post ‘the title is provocative but (the criticism has been) from people who haven’t seen the movie. So I don’t give them much energy” During the controversial party sequence, Parris dons a blond wig and makeup four shades too light but found the scene difficult; “Seeing myself in that wig and in that makeup, it was emotional for me, because I know that there are women who, in order to feel beautiful, think that they have to do this,” she says The South Carolina-raised Parris has faced racism in her life, though she’s coy about recent examples. She will,dear-white-people_med however, take a stance against one perpetual problem she’s encountered – even at the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie was an undeniable hit.

“I’ve never done this to anyone, so it really boggles my mind when it’s done to me, but they come up to pet or rub your hair,” she says. “It’s so offensive and belittling and demeaning because it feels like you’re petting me. I’m not a zoo animal.”

This faux pas and just about every other predictable racial offense are lampooned in Dear White People. But to Parris, the film isn’t just about that. “I think the movie, more than being about race is about identity,” she explains. “These students are trying to figure to deal with identity. Do you assimilate? Do you just go against everything?”

Dear White People is written, directed and produced by Justin Simien and was released in the US on October 17th. Although the critically acclaimed film had two screenings at the London Film Festival there are no plans for a general release at this time in the UK. A collective of UK film fans have attempted to organise an independent screening following a campaign by blogger Cherelle Morris who expressed disappointment that the film would only have two screenings and that tickets had sold out. Morris quickly set up a Facebook campaign with some 900 people expressing interest in attending a screening of the film.

Despite the criticism of the film Simien has defended his vision; “My film isn’t about ‘white racism’ at all. It is about identity. It’s about the difference between how the mass culture responds to a person because of their race and who that person understands themselves to truly be.” Simien said “I did a lot of research of blackface parties, I did a lot of research on Ivy League colleges and race issues and there was an abundance of story ideas during that process. I never had a point where I didn’t know where the plot should go. I had too many options”

The film itself originated as a product of an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign and initially the director aimed to raise $25,000 but an overwhelming response led to a cash pot of some $40,000.

Dear White People opened in the US on just 11 screens last weekend, and took a great average of $31,273, for a total of $344,000. Compared to other films that also opened in limited release this weekend, “DWP” was second only to the highly praised “Birdman” by “Babel” director Alejandro Inarritu, starring Michael Keaton, which opened on just 4 screens, with an average of $103,750, for a total of $415,000.

The film will open-up wider this coming Friday (24th Oct), across the US; we will then see how it does against other films. Since the film was made on a very low budget according to director Justin Simien and with those box office figures stacking up we have no doubt it will further do very well as it has shown to be doing already.

Released in USA from 17th October 2014

We will keep you informed about any UK news, especially as we have been approached by others to bring the film to the UK – we will see!!

More news to come!