“Dear White People” or Nah?

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Way back in 2006, when I was a plump faced freshman at Johns Hopkins, I got my first taste of proper American racism. That year the big Halloween party was called “Halloween in the Hood.” The ladies were encouraged to come dressed as “hoodrats, skig skags, or scallywhops” and one too many guys tried to be your dark skin friend that looks like Michael Jackson. Our Black Student Union protested for weeks but not much had changed. Eight years later, the darling of the independent film scene is a small film about Black kids at a prestigious, predominantly White, institution dealing with a racist Halloween party called “Dear White People.” Somebody must have dropped the top on their whip, because I feel some type of way.

Let me get the good out first: DWP is a beautiful film. As a director, Justin Simien is a find and deserves many of the accolades he’s received. The cast is sexy as hell and the cinematography is a gorgeous. There is a sepia pallet used throughout the film that is very reminiscent of neo soul videos from the turn of the century, or your righteous friend’s favorite instagram filter. Simien’s film looks warm and inviting. As a writer, though, he’s a cold brother.

“Dear White People” is a heartless exercise in regurgitating facts from someone’s intro to African American studies notes. Not one character in this film is three dimensional, sympathetic, or even likeable. There are angry White kids picking fights with angry Black kids, and angry Black kids picking fights with angrier Black kids and no one reacts to anything like an actual human being. Being Black at a White college will infuriate you in countless ways, but it’s painful to watch Simien ignore all the good that comes with it.

There is a scene in the film in which the nerdy Lionel (played wonderfully by Tyler James Williams) tries to bond with his alpha male roommate, Troy (Brandon P Bell) over Star Trek. It’s a small scene with very little pay off in the rest of the film, but it feels overtly insincere. This may be a shock, but colleges are full of geeks and nerds, especially the really prestigious ones. The absolute best part about going to college is meeting new people that share your interests and world views and have new ones to offer. Nothing like an exchange of ideas ever comes out of “Dear White People.” The film is populated with nothing but racial caricatures and bullies. The stereotyping of the tragic Mulatto, the code switching Uncle Tom, and the ostracized Colored Queer feels exceptionally dehumanizing in the context of this film that promoted itself like it knew better.


If you research the event from Hopkins in 2014 you’ll find three pages of Google hits about how the fraternity was punished by the university before you find a substantial opinion from any of the students involved. That focus on sensational punishments and shocking images of teenagers in 21st Century blackface is one of the reasons events like this keep popping up all over the country and why “Dear White People” ultimately fails.

When the real life ruckus settled down about that “Halloween in the Hood Party,” we weren’t angry anymore. The Black students at Johns Hopkins had talked to the press, we’d talked to the NAACP, we’d talked to the president of the school, and after it all we were exhausted. Many of us had spent more time protesting than studying and ended up on academic probation. A lot of us had lost friends of all races. We were 18 year-old kids who had just left our mother’s homes, many from poor Black areas, and were shocked, horrified, and hurt to learn that this was how our new community saw us. We were diverse accessories to the administration and novel costumes to our so-called friends. The fallout from the racist party taught me more about racism than any number of pseudo-coons ever could.

“Dear White People” is easily the biggest wasted opportunity of 2014, a particularly racially charged year. It’s a poorly researched visual essay that is only salvaged by its good looks and top-notch performances. I have no idea what a White audience will take away from this film, but I have a sudden urge to watch reruns of A Different World.

By Justin B. Jones

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9 Comments

  1. Orlando

     /  November 5, 2014

    I have to agree “Dear White People” was not all that i expected it to be but at the same time I feel like we (meaning Black Americans or people who choose to identify themselves as such) were expecting way to much from a movie…

    I feel like we expected this movie to educate White people on our feelings or give them an inkling to “our side of the story”. At the end of the day this is a movie…HOLLYWOOD… we cant expect one movie to depict feelings of 800 plus years of slavery and discrimination.

    Dear White People is a satire. A satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues… Is that not exactly what Dear White People did?

    I think so.

    In all, repeating myself, Dear White People was not the movie I expected it to be but at the same time aren’t our expectations a little to high for a single satire film?

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  2. L. Smith

     /  November 5, 2014

    Incredible review. I’ve never seen the film but based on this description, I don’t think I need to. I had a similar experience to yours in undergrad. Though my culture was not specifically targeted as a stereotype for a theme party, we were ostracized, joked about, mocked, disregarded and disenfranchised as a minority group at a very southern, public university. Even the administration didn’t bother listening. I am horrified this happened at Hopkins but glad you stood up for yourselves. Hopefully the fallout will open some eyes and ensure this doesn’t happen in the future.

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  3. Sarah M

     /  November 11, 2014

    Thanks for the smart critique, Justin. I actually haven’t had a chance to see Dear White People yet. I’ve heard similar responses – that it goes through the motions of pulling up trite caricatures while failing to bring either true insight to the issues or emotional depth. (I got the same review from my very progressive, albeit very white boyfriend.) With that said, I still plan on seeing it. I want to put my money towards supporting the film and show that there’s interest from audiences (of all colors). I totally agree that in the year of Ferguson and the wake of Trayvon, we need more, but the fact that it’s out there and grabbing so much attention is at least a positive step.

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  4. Reblogged this on Red Thread Broken and commented:
    After seeing this film last month, I have to agree with much of this author says. I was disappointed that not one of the black males was portrayed as a possible romantic lead. Additionally, most of the characters felt more like caricatures. The only Asian character shown repeatedly has just one line, and it’s about food – not race, respect, or something controversial/thought-provoking. To me, the most sobering part of this film was at the end, when photos are shown of blackface / African-American themed parties that actually happened on college campuses. While I’m glad I saw it, I was expecting a little bit more.

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  5. ” “Dear White People” is easily the biggest wasted opportunity of 2014, a particularly racially charged year. ” After watching the film this weekend, after waiting for months I could not agree more with your statement. I sat in horror from a movie that started ok, and then just got worse and worse. I was so disappointed and wondered the same thing, what is white people really going to learn from this. What I thought they did well was probably make white people possibly uncomfortable while they were sitting in the theatre, or create an opportunity for dialogue in classrooms. It was just so sad. In my opinion, women were portrayed terribly, it was such a patriarchal movie…. I would also crown it “the biggest wasted opportunity”.

    It also just served to piss me off more…. those of us who go to predominately white institutions and deal with the same or worse types of racism and micro aggressions and to have to face it even more in the movie without any sense of empowerment. When I saw that party, I must have been living under a rock apparently because I did not know such things existed. I am originally from Miami, which is predominately hispanic, we had school parties but they reflected my culture. I did not know these things happened, when my brother, who currently attends NYU stated he has been to these types of parties that are demoralizing I just stood stunned. Thanks “Dear White People” for letting me know if I thought it was bad…there is worse. I guess that is the type of thing that may get the oppressed to act…or be re-traumatized.

    I also will add, a friend of my brothers’ who attends NYU and is also white, came out of the movie feeling it was the best movie ever. Saying “don’t you think the movie was so good”, as my brother stood there dumbfounded. So who knows what white people will think or learn.

    Regardless, thanks for the review. Pretty accurate.

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  6. Velvet

     /  November 16, 2014

    Thank you for your insightful review, it has definitely changed my mind about watching this movie and the negative portrayal it has created. Films such as these are what keep people oppressed. Yes it may have been created with satire in mind, but people take this as factual and do not comprehend that this is supposed to be comedic and exaggerated. It is what leads to ignorance and the belief that we as people of color are stereotypes. People feed off of this and wait for us to make fools of ourselves and with films advocating this there is little room for progress.

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  7. Abby

     /  November 18, 2014

    Wow, this was a powerfully critical review of a film that sounds like it had so much potential. Based on your review, I don’t think I will waste my time watching it, and I think it’s a dangerous path to expect so little (not so much) from Hollywood. Given the current state of our society, in which Hollywood and celebrities are beacons of power (and whether they like it our not, carry a powerful voice), we need to take the experience of Dear White People and pressure film makers to do more. It’s risky to excuse a failed attempt to shine light on an issue as major as racism in higher education institutions and write it off as ‘another Hollywood fail’.

    I am not arguing that your review is excusing the film at all, in fact I think your post is very poignant and points to powerful opportunities this film could have shed light on the real issues at hand. It definitely makes me think of the crude themed parties at my own University that marginalized other groups, such as “Pimps and Hoes” or “Golf Pros and Tennis Hoes” and the lack of dialogue on my campus surrounding the repercussions of sensationalizing the word “hoes” in the name of a party theme.

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  8. Derek

     /  November 19, 2014

    I was very excited to hear this movie was being released. I figured it would be a social conscious look at race and how it dictates personal relations in educational institutions. I figured it would be a narrative similar to Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” I was disappointed and gravely mistaken.

    I appreciate this thoughtful analysis because when people asked me about the movie, I did not know how to be critical in an honest or thoughtful way. I did not want to bash the director or writer but found the movie to be cheesy and simplistic. I am glad that a conversation is being had regrading race across school campuses. I am glad movies about race and black perspectives are attempting to be shown across American. However, I would prefer more controversial and complex characters.

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  9. Gia

     /  February 8, 2015

    This was such a popular post! I’ll add that I saw the movie and I didn’t feel as though I wasted my $14, but I also did not check-in expecting to be privy to a weighty yet articulate take on race politics in America.

    Yes, the characters were one-dimensional. Yes, the movie was really predictable and could even be called shallow. It was sort-of the equivalent of watching “Can’t Hardly Wait” or “10 Things I Hate About You” — really campy and stereotypical, but light-hearted and …fun.

    I’m not saying that we cannot expect more from our films, that we should not look to contemporary filmmakers to speak to real issues and shine light on people and dilemmas otherwise obscured from the mainstream. I also think that one of the initial functions of movies — comedies — was escapism. Maybe it isn’t terrible that America is still churning out the same types of superficial, teenster flicks that I grew up watching, except now, a few of these movies have more people of color as protagonists. As far as white people taking the movie seriously (as Velvet said), I went with a white girl and I feel confident that she understood the hokeyness of it without issue.

    I’ll admit that the trailer was very misleading, thus the larger miss is in not marketing the movie as another run-of-the-mill, young adult tale about finding yourself in college, marketed to the high school demographic. I don’t think that qualifies it as the “biggest missed opportunity of 2014.” It was a fun Saturday night with my friends; lighter than expected, but not bad in the least!

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