“I said to my creative team that this movie is [like] Do the Right Thing and The Royal Tenenbaums had an interracial love-child that went to college,” says 31-year-old Justin Simien of his debut film, Dear White People. Centered on a blackface party at a fictional Ivy League school, the thematically ambitious, visually and musically eclectic, clever and cathartic satire is a film nerd’s interpretation of the fundamental aspects of the black experience—ones Simien didn’t see represented anywhere in the medium dearest to his heart.
Which is not to say that there is a black experience. If there’s one thing Simien’s “black hipster movie” quickly and repeatedly argues, it’s that every African-American individual experiences, interprets, and performs blackness differently, modulating it from situation to situation, sometimes from minute to minute.
At the mostly white Winchester University, Sam (Tessa Thompson) adopts a perpetually angry stance, delivering “blacker-than-thou propaganda” on her radio show: “Dear white people, the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” South Side Chicago native Coco (Mad Men‘s Teyonah Parris) is an economics major determined to find herself a “Gosling” — mostly because she believes herself to be, in the eyes of the few black bachelors at her school, no more than a placeholder for a white woman.
Troy (Brandon Bell) seems just what Coco won’t allow herself to want: the dean’s preppy, Future-Leader-of-America son — except he’s secretly relying on drugs to meet his father’s expectations of a high-achieving but nonthreatening black man. Most adrift is Lionel (Everybody Hates Chris‘s Tyler James Williams), the gay, Afro’d aspiring writer who has never felt comfortable in predominantly black settings.