“For all the White people in the audience, on behalf of all the Black people in the world, you most definitely have permission to laugh.” That’s the disclaimer first-time director Justin Simien has been issuing before every Sundance screening of his biting satire of racial politics, Dear White People, which he also wrote. Laugh they did. And judging from a post-screening Q&A that consisted entirely of people standing up to give personal testimonials and lavish effusive praise on Simien, the cast, and the crew, DWP is most definitely a front-runner to take home the festival’s Audience Award.
The title refers to an incendiary radio show at a fictional Ivy League college, Winchester University, hosted by a militant revolutionary, biracial film student named Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), who believes Gremlins is about White people’s fear of Black urban encroachment, because the little monsters go crazy for fried chicken and freak out when their hair gets wet. She broadcasts edicts to the campus like, “Dear White People, the minimum requirement of Black friends needed to not seem racist has been raised … to two. Sorry, your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count.” Or, “Dear White People: Please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”
At the start of the film, Winchester’s administration has passed a randomized housing policy that threatens to break up the power base that comes from most of the Black students living in the same residence. In retaliation, Sam and her Black power clique ban all non-residents (mostly White people) from entering the premises — and egg them if they so much set foot in the doorway. Not everyone in the house embraces Sam’s radicalism, though. There’s Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the clean-cut son of the Dean (Dennis Haysbert), who’s dating the White daughter of the University president and doesn’t want to rock the boat too much lest it ruin his chances of running for office later. And Coco (Teyonah Parris, a.k.a. Dawn from Mad Men!), the dark-skinned girl from inner-city Chicago, who wears a long, straight weave and is trying to appear sophisticated and mainstream enough to get on TV. And the gay Lionel (Tyler James Williams from Everybody Hates Chris), the aspiring reporter with a giant Afro who watches from a distance, trying to figure out where he fits in. The only things that bring them together are hating on Tyler Perry movies and pure outrage when a group of mostly White students throw an “African-American”–themed party complete with watermelon and Blackface. The invitation asks guests to show up ready to “liberate their inner Negro.”