In the new film Dear White People, Ivy League students of color sound off on what is and what isn’t working in post-Obama America. Some of it will probably make you angry, but no doubt some of it will make you laugh.
Dear White People is a satire on racial politics played out in the world of the Ivy League university system. You may have seen some of Spike Lee‘s legendary films like School Daze or Do the Right Thing, which dealt with the same issues, only those films were made over two decades ago. We’d like to think the racial divide is getting smaller, but clearly it’s still too wide. Thankfully, writer/director Justin Simien has picked up where Lee left off.
Here, we look at some of the stereotypes this new film is trying to bust.
Stereotype No. 1: Angry black woman
Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is a biracial media arts major with her own radio show called “Dear White People.” On her show, she gives cheeky advice to help redefine and modernize multicultural ideas. At one point in the film, she says, “Dear white people, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two.”
Samantha, like many young people of mixed race, seems to feel pressured to identify with one race or another to be accepted by her peers. Samantha’s troubled relationship with her ailing white father succinctly mirrors her relationship with Gabe (Justin Dobies), a Caucasian boy she keeps under wraps along with her love for Taylor Swift and other things not accepted by black culture.
Bottom line: Samantha isn’t angry; she’s complicated with a fear of never being understood by black or white culture. We’re rooting for her because she’s clever and isn’t afraid to speak her voice. She’s on a journey that will, hopefully, lead her to discover her true self.
Stereotype No. 2: Crazy, bitch-slapping reality show celeb
Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) uses her brains and beauty as a double-edged sword to attract and skewer white dudes at her Ivy League university. When a reality TV show producer tells her she’s not right for his show, she decides to push the boundaries on her video blog, eventually donning blue contact lenses and a blond wig to create all sorts of reality TV-worthy drama.
Bottom line: Coco is wicked smart. She has real power; she just hasn’t learned the best way to use it. Simien said, “She is playing the assimilation game without qualms. To survive in this place, she’s going to have to be a certain kind of black woman. She has no problem appearing any way that gets her what she wants.” We’re rooting for her because we can all relate to being pressured to be something we’re not.
Stereotype No. 3: The Talented Tenth
Basically, the Talented Tenth is a century-old stereotype, and Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is stuck in it. As the son of a university dean, Troy’s under a lot of pressure to represent this faded ideal of black leadership. “Troy lives in the shadow of his father’s vision for him,” Simien said. “The generation before us, the ones sometimes called “the talented Tenth” had to fight so hard to get where we are now, so there’s extra pressure for their children to succeed.”
Bottom line: Troy has a strong sense of morality and is highly sensitive to those around him. We’re rooting for him because we trust he’ll figure out a way to break free from his father’s expectations while forging his own path of leadership that reflects a more modern era.
Stereotype No. 4: Rich white male who thinks racism is over because of Obama
Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner) is an antagonist who is perhaps too smart for his own good. “You may disagree with what he has to say, but you can’t help but chuckle at it. Kyle is incredibly gifted, and he manages the balance between humor and sincerity with a lot of skill. He made sure the character didn’t come across as cardboard and one-dimensional,” Simien said.
Bottom line: Kurt thinks he knows all the answers but is about to discover the questions have all changed. While we’re not exactly rooting for him, we all know someone like him and can relate to his resistance to exit his traditional white comfort zone.
Stereotype No. 5: Afro-sporting sci-fi geek known as a “Blerd”
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) wants to be a journalist and joins the school paper where he’s expected to cover “black culture.” But Lionel is having his own identity crisis, given that he’s also gay and can’t find a place to fit in.
Bottom line: Our culture is rapidly changing, and Lionel is on the front line of that change. We’re rooting for him because he has to navigate being gay in a culture that doesn’t traditionally accept this definition of black masculinity. We’re hoping we can all expand our preconceived notions of what a man of any race should be.
Dear White People opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 17.