Film Review: Dear White People

Satire is the weapon of reason. 


Dear White People is the first feature film from writer/director Justin Simien. Funded partially by Indiegogo, the film was released in the States on Oct. 17th, but only made it to Vancouver, Canada last Friday. If you haven’t been following my myriad anticipatory tweets, please click here to watch the trailer.

Set at the fictional Winchester University, Dear White People follows four college students as they navigate life as a ‘black face in a white place.’ Two men. Two women. Three straight. One gay. The boxes are ticked, but the characters never feel as if they were created to take a side. Each one is a nuanced, dynamic individual with his or her own opinions, motivations, and struggles.

I’ll get into race in a minute, but first let’s get one thing clear: Dear White People is a fantastic movie. 

It would undermine Simien’s acerbic, modern, and hilarious script to talk about the “issues” first. Yes, Dear White People is a satire about race… on the surface. But that’s not what the film is really about. It’s actually a coming of age film about four people — kids, essentially — in their early twenties, trying to figure out who they are. Simien does not judge their actions or frame them so the audience has to choose a side; he makes sure that their insecurities (and supervening actions) come from an authentic place. His dialogue is brilliant, fast paced, and, dare I say, hip? For lack of a better term, what I mean is, Simien captures how Gen Y speaks, and what about, but makes it film-worthy i.e. funnier, more intelligent, and just as self-serving. It’s also beautifully shot (with an opening that would make Wes Anderson proud), impeccably scored, and wonderfully acted (What up, Veronica Mars alumnus!). Also, big kudos to the wardrobe and hair & makeup folks; I covet everything Sam wore.

But, ultimately, what makes this film so important — and what makes it a social satire — is that while navigating their collegiate lives and trying to figure out what kind of people they’re going to be, the colour of our leads’ skin defines their journey. But it shouldn’t. And that’s the point.


White privilege — like feminism and other hot button words — seems to mean different things to different people. (In the new times that are the wild west of the world wide web, a division of language is a terrifying thing), but I’ll push that thought aside for now and explain the meaning of what, I’ve come to understand, is ‘white privilege.’ 

Beyond being treated differently (based on the colour of your skin), white privilege is the inability to comprehend what someone who is not you, who is not white, is going through, has gone through, and will continue to go through in their every day lives.

This privilege can also extend to wealth, sexual orientation, nationality, and gender. I, personally, only recently came to understand the need to stand up for feminism because of my own Canadian privilege — growing up in a very lovely bubble where I wasn’t treated differently for being a girl. Yes, I’m still unpacking all the various, often invisible ways I’ve been affected by misogyny but growing up in this country, in this time, with this body has given me an easy path.

What I’m trying to say is, while Lionel, Sam, Troy, and Coco are simply trying to figure out their own identities, society (Winchester College, their peers, their parents, the media) expect them to dictate themselves through their race. While in Canada* many of us look around and shake our heads, understanding that race doesn’t define a person, these stereotypes, these assumptions, these beliefs (about race, gender, sexuality) are so prevalent the world over that this conversation is not even close to being over.

*Canada is not perfect. We have A LOT to work on, but it’s not black vs. white up here (which is what the States appears to be, or at least us vs. them — ‘us’ being white people and ‘them’ being everyone else. (To which I say, your country was built on immigration, get with the fucking program. And, also, all humans are equal. Duh.))

Dear White People is important for two big reasons:

  1. It’s a fantastic coming of age independent feature written and directed by a promising new talent. Justin Simien wrote this script, shot a trailer for $2,000, brought it to Indiegogo (raising $40,ooo), garnered enough attention to attach an independent producer, directed it for waaay under a million dollars, got it into Sundance and across the world. Now that’s impressive. The film navigates its four different leads’ story with grace, charm, and wit. Not to mention it’s really fucking entertaining.
  2. It asks us to question what we know, what we believe to be true. It asks us not to define people by the way they look. It questions ‘post-racial America’ and (hopefully) demands of us to continue examining this issue instead of passively shrugging that ‘it’s over.’

There are so many more things to talk about here. There is so much turmoil in the States (and the rest of the world). There is so far to go in the entertainment industry. Chris Rock’s recent essay reminds us how ‘white’ the industry is. An industry that acts as society’s mirror, showing us who people are, what to believe and how to act. This is a conversation we need to continue to have.

Just go see the movie because it’s really good. It’s an independent feat and an impressive debut. Then, if you take something more from it, great. Remember, while society tries — and sometimes succeeds — in dictating the lives of the characters in the film Dear White People, in reality it also dictates our beliefs (often without our knowledge). Racism is learned and taught. And film & television often replicate these learned bad behaviours… especially the most subtle, insidious ones. This place that we call home isn’t quite as post-racial/sexist/homophobic as we like to believe it is. And if a smart, funny, sweet film can make us a little more aware of that, then it’s a good place to start.

The Power of Your (Bad) Words

Jonah Hill has come under fire this week for yelling homophobic remarks at the paparazzo who was stalking him. While it appears relatively unprovoked, I do believe that he was being followed and harassed for a long time. As such, I support Jonah in his right to tell this guy to “Fuck off.” (Although, if I was in that situation, I’d be asking myself What Would George Clooney Do? And the answer, obviously, would be smile, laugh, wave, and walk away.)

Premiere Of Twentieth Century Fox's "The Watch" - Arrivals

I believe Jonah when he says he’s not a homophobe. I believe that he has gay friends and family members whom he loves very much. But I believe that with his insult he wanted to, from a position of superiority, convey the most vitriol he could muster. And so he told this paparazzo, “Suck my dick, you faggot.”

In Jonah’s mind (a writer, actor, and improvisor’s brain), the most demoralizing thing he could think of was demanding another man to suck his dick. So while he may not be outwardly homophobic, the societal belief* that gay men are of less worth is clearly deeply ingrained in him.

* I wish I didn’t have to call it a “societal belief” but look around, we’re not past this yet.

I was dating this guy a couple months ago. (Not Jonah Hill… We’ll get back to him.) We had been seeing each other for a couple of weeks; things were going well. He ‘we’-ed us. There was potential. But he had causally dropped “retarded” and “faggot” into two different conversations. I didn’t say anything in the moment (for various reasons) but I flagged it to bring up later. So one night, we’re out drinking with a couple of my friends and he drops the r-word again. Finally! My chance to set him straight. I quickly pipped up and told him that not only do those words make me uncomfortable, but I find using them in conversation morally irresponsible.

Naturally I assumed he’d say something along the lines of, “Oh. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll never say them again.”

Nope. Instead he told me that he used to avoid these words, but recently decided that as he’s not a bigot, he is allowed to use these terms in jest as long as those people aren’t around. FUCK THE WHAT?! Then he started arguing some sort of backwards rhetoric about my believing the term “retarded” to be demeaning to a group of people was in itself demeaning. Let’s not forget to mention that he was also throwing the n-word around too.

Later, as I was endlessly conversing the matter with several girlfriends, I received mixed feedback. A few people told me “that’s just the way guys are” and that I should give him another chance. What?


Listen, I get it. You don’t mean any harm. It’s always been a part of your vocabulary. You’re just so used to saying it — you don’t mean it; it just comes out. That guy I dated, Jonah Hill, your boyfriend, your girlfriends, that loud dude at the beach, none of them are bad people.  Some of them might be mildly bigoted, but most of them simply aren’t conscious enough to understand what they’re saying and what it means.

What those people — you? — need to realize, and I’m saying this to those that are kind, thoughtful people (I don’t think even my bold italics could sway real bigots.), I’m saying you need to understand that your words have repercussions. Although you mean no harm, you are propagating the degradation and humiliation of other human beings. You’re selfishly choosing to keep something in your vocabulary because it’s familiar, you like the way it rolls off your tongue, and it conveys your point in a manner that you have yet to discover a better word for.
This is what Urban Dictionary has to say about the word “retard:”
1. retard
A person born with a mental condition and therefore has to work a million times harder to be able to do simple things (such as learn and communicate) that we take for granted. On top of this, a retard will usually suffer a lot of ridicule from society because people fear what they do not understand. The people who choose to make fun of the mental retarded tend to be complete morons and cannot comprehend that these people have feelings and emotions just like anyone else.
I find it amusing that saying somebody has cancer would not be taken as a joke and yet, using another disease such as mental retardation as an insult is common among society, and many do not realize that it is very offensive and that there is something seriously wrong about it.
-Urban Dictionary
If Urban Dictionary, Urban-fucking-Dictionary, thinks it’s wrong (along with, not to mention, EVERY OTHER dictionary: “often used as a general term of abuse” “a contemptuous term” “ used as a disparaging term”), then you probably shouldn’t be saying it.
Faggot isn’t okay. Neither are Chink, Nigger, or Injun. Do those words make you uncomfortable? Retard and Retarded should make you uncomfortable too.
In summation:
You are being insensitive, insecure, and frankly a massive ASSHOLE if you ever choose to use any derogatory words. Even in jest. Especially in jest. Even if you’re Jonah Hill. Pull your heads out of your asses, kids, and CONSIDER what you are saying. Or don’t. Keep dropping retarded and faggot and whatever other antiquated derogatory term pleases you into your conversations; type ’em out in your Facebook posts; yell them at your buddy for chickening out; relay them to your friends to describe how drunk you were…
And one day, when you have children, whom I sincerely hope are healthy and happy (regardless of how, from their births, they happen to experience the world), I hope that they are kinder and more thoughtful than you. I hope they choose to see the world as a place full of people just doing their best and trying to get by. I hope they embrace everyone they meet with respect and empathy. I hope they teach you how to be a better person, because if you are still so careless with how you regard other human beings that you choose to use these hateful, hurtful, selfish words, then you’re not doing a very good job yet.