Netflix recently released the third season of their hit comedy show and it’s more popular than ever before, so there isn’t a better time to look back at the film that started it all. Justin Simien’s 2014 hit of the same name; Dear White People.
Winchester is a prestige Ivy League university. It is home to both white and black students, although one group is still very much in the minority. At Winchester, we follow four black students over a five week period which ends with a blackface party, thrown by white students on Halloween night. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is an activist, film student and a recently elected Head of House of the all-black hall Parker-Armstrong. In her free time, she runs a radio show bearing the same name as the film itself. Tessa shines in one of her career-best performances, bringing nuances to Sam’s character and making her relatable. She is a rebel with a cause and we are with her every step of the way. Despite her determination, Sam doesn’t change much during the film, and exits the story with only a slightly altered view, if at all.
Next up is a newcomer to the school, a gay student with an overgrown afro, Lionel (Tyler James Williams). He is an outsider, who doesn’t feel good in the company of neither the white nor the black kids. As a journalist for one of the multiple school papers, he spends much of the runtime in the background, observing or writing. It takes him time to make any form of connections at Winchester and Tyler James Williams perfectly shows the awkwardness many feel in school. One of these connections happens when Lionel gets a paired room with Troy (Brandon Bell).
Troy is a popular kid, the one who is welcome basically anywhere. He tried to run for Head of the House, but lost to Sam. Being the son of the dean, people place high expectations on him. Troy studies politics and tells people that his aspirations are in law, maybe even running in office. It’s not really Troy’s dream, but his father pressures him to work hard on himself. In reality, Troy wants to enjoy his time at the university. He uses his spare time to write jokes, hoping he’ll get into Pastiche, the school’s humour magazine. Sam may be the one who leads the film, but it’s Troy who comes out as the end as the most memorable character. He plays well with everyone in the film, as all the characters know him (opposed to Lionel, for example).
Last, but not least is Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris). She’s a young woman determined to be famous, by any means necessary. If not through academic results, then reality TV. She feels better among white people, which makes the confrontations with other characters that much more interesting. Coco may not be given much to do in the film, but she represents a unique positions in this story. And she’s also the only character to get her own theme song.
The score, composed by Kathryn Bostic, is a minimalist mixture of modern jazz and classical compositions. There isn’t much of it in the film (the whole score is only 10 minutes long), but it uses it in the right moments to further the plot. It functions as a storytelling device, using the two genres to illustrate the conflict on Winchester.
Characters in Dear White People don’t have arcs, due to the slice-of-life point of view storytelling the film chooses. It’s Troy that changes the most and that’s what makes him so likeable. While others have their world-views only challenged, Troy is actively confronted with his and does something about it. By the time credits roll, his relationships to other students on campus changed significantly.
The film is divided into multiple segments, each separated by a title card. That gives it an episodic feel, almost as if you were binge-watching a show rather than a movie (wink). Surprisingly, the story flows well through these little bits of university life, as the film shows a situation and then the characters’ reactions. Each segment comes with its own little plot and jokes. Unfortunately, the latter is where the film fails. This, primarily a comedy movie, isn’t really that funny. Most of the jokes or references fall flat. Sam stands out as the comedic highlight, thanks mainly to the great delivery by Tessa Thompson. Her jokes are punchy, smart and actually funny. The rest of the cast stumbles, getting one or two moments that may be amusing, but you’ll have a hard time recollecting them after the movie ends.
Anchored by strong performances and a unique story, Dear White People is an impressive debut. However, it never feels like it reached its full potential. The episodic nature of the film makes it seem as the story was always intended as a show. In the end, I’m glad Netflix picked it up, allowed Justin Simien to flesh out the characters and story, and end up with one of the best comedy shows out right now.