If you assumed the intended audience for Dear White People is white people, you are forgiven.
Director Justin Simien's debut film is less finger wagging at white folks than comedic commiseration with black people who must exist in mostly white spaces. It's for every black student at top-tier universities and every black professional who doesn't work for BET. If in the process, white people learn about the ways they create and maintain systems that disadvantage people of color, that's cool too.
The satire follows the travails of four black students at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League campus complete with ornate buildings, oak paneled halls, and micro aggressions galore.
The movie's title is the sign-on Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) uses for her campus radio show. "Dear White People," Samantha says, "the minimum requirement of black friends needed not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count."
Samantha's activist worldview butts up against the on-campus political ambitions of racially palatable Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) and irks classmate Colandrea "Coco" Conners (Teyonah Parris), whose blue contacts and long weave testify to her attempts to assimilate.
The film's most intriguing character is the gay, socially awkward Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris). With cultural tastes too white to find a home with black classmates and skin too brown to assimilate, he and his irregularly shaped Afro ("a black hole for white people's fingers," he laments) are batted around campus like a hacky sack.
With humor and edge, Dear White People, a darling at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, deftly navigates the minefield of racial identity.
What makes you black? Is it culture? Dating within your race? Rejecting European standards of beauty? Unquestioning solidarity with other black people? Disrupting discriminatory systems? Burying one part of your identity – sexuality, for example – to emphasize another? The intraracial tensions invoke the memory of the epic Jiggaboos vs. Wannabes warfare in Spike Lee's 1988 School Daze.
Simien also lays bare the persistent aping of black culture by white students who are ignorant of how offensive the reductive mimicry is.
And if you think all the angst about being black in a white space is just hand wringing by hypersensitive colored folks, be sure to stay until the credits roll.
The film's pacing lags occasionally, but for a debut film that relies in part on crowd-sourced funding, the production is polished. So much is packed into this movie that it can't all be digested in one sitting. The themes it raises around interracial dating, self-segregation, and sexuality merit discussion and dissection. What Dear White People does not deserve is the burden of being all things to all people. It touches on sexuality (the director Simien came out as gay following the Sundance screening), but won't satisfy those who want a prolonged exploration of where sexual orientation and race intersect. It repeats patriarchal messages, but don't expect Simien to linger on women's agency in romantic relationships.
Expect to laugh because it's funny, but be prepared to wince because it's all so true.