“Good satire comes from anger. It comes from a sense of injustice, that there are wrongs in the world that need to be fixed.”
This definition of satire comes from writer Carl Hiaasen, not me, but I couldn’t have put it better myself. From Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart, satire has always been a tool for society to sharply examine itself. Satire is a thought-provoker. It’s a conversation starter.
The new film Dear White People, which opened last weekend after a hype-laden festival run, is one such conversation starter, and it’s come along not a moment too soon. At a time when the events in Ferguson are still fresh in our mind, and the need for discussions about race that transcend cultural differences is keenly felt, writer-director Justin Simien’s satirical film presents a veritable smorgasbord of possibilities from which to start that dialogue.
Dear White People follows the experiences of several African-American students at the fictional, mostly-white Winchester University, and the events leading to a stereotype-themed Halloween party that ends in a riot. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is a firebrand activist whose public face hides vulnerability and a secret love of Taylor Swift. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the school’s dean, is torn between the future his father is engineering for him and the future he wants for himself. Coco (Teyonah Parris) wants to fit in with university culture by any means possible, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is struggling to reconcile the culture of his race with his identity as a nerd and as a gay man.
While this setup sounds like it could just as easily be the start of a serious-minded drama, Simien doesn’t go there. Instead, he uses biting humor and incisive wit to explore the difficulties of racial and personal identity, as well as the unwitting insensitivity and straight-up obliviousness of their white classmates and colleagues. It’s an approach that makes for smart and funny entertainment; but it also provides a relatable way to bring up the real-life issues of race and identity that black people — or any minority, for that matter — face every day, and that, through the distorted lens of privilege, white people don’t always understand.
There are many situations, conflicts, and topics at play in Dear White People — so many, in fact, that the issues Simien wants to discuss threaten the strength of the story and characters. If there’s any negative criticism to be given to the film, it’s that the filmmaker packs too many ideas into a single movie, and the narrative suffers as a consequence. But it’s an easy enough problem to overlook, since each of those ideas is so compelling.
It might also be tempting for some viewers to see Dear White People as over-the-top. To see some of its characters as caricatures, or the offensive party that makes up its climax — with white students dressed in blackface — as unrealistic. But it’s not. For evidence, you only need to look as far as the credits, which show photos from similar events at other schools across the country. And when the president of Winchester claims that “racism is over in America,” it doesn’t sound too different from Bill O’Reilly’s similar claim on The Daily Show just last week.
Dear White People is clever, loving, angry satire. It’s a multi-faceted exploration of race in a time when such portrayals are needed, like peroxide on a deep cut. The film sometimes falters in its process, but delivers the goods when it matters most. The fact that it comes so stingingly close to reality is stunning. It’s funny. It’s sad.
This movie won’t change the world directly. It is, after all, just a movie. But it opens the door to some important conversations that some people may not have known how to have until now. And that, in itself, is extremely important.
Dear White People is currently playing in Atlanta, New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles, and opens nationwide on October 24. WATCH the trailer here.
Abby Olcese is Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.