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Movie Review

Winchester University, like most of America, is confused about the intricacies of race relations. And so Samantha White aims to enlighten … and further confuse.

Preaching from a radio studio, Sam hosts a show called "Dear White People," offering sometimes snide, sometimes revealing "advice" to presumed Caucasian listeners while digging for laughs from her African-American fans.

"Dear white people," she begins, telling them that the term African-American is now borderline racist. If you're so race-conscious that you use that term instead of black, Sam says, you must have some subconscious racial insecurities.

"Dear white people," she says, whites must now have a minimum of two black friends to not be considered racist. "No, your weed guy Tyone does not count."

"Dear white people," she says, mocking race relations even as she skewers the concept that racism is a dead issue—buried with the success of Oprah and Obama. For her, racism is an everyday reality, confirmed in ways large and small, obvious and subtle. Black oppression has never stopped, she alleges. It just changed its face.

If Sam stands outside the school's white power structure with a fist raised in defiance, others come with a hand outstretched in uneasy—and Sam would say ingratiating—friendship. Troy Fairbanks, son of the school's dean of students, plies crowds with an easy wit and charming smile. He's dating the daughter of the school's white president—a cagey political move designed by his manipulative dad. But the girl's motives aren't exactly clear either.

"Dear white people," Sam says. "Dating a black person to p--- off your parents is racist."

Colandrea Connors changed her first name to Coco to linguistically remove herself from her ghetto Chicago roots. She wants to assimilate into the school's white cliques and land a reality show on TV. But when a would-be producer says that controversy sells, she suddenly styles herself as a counterpoint to Sam's "Dear White People" shtick—even embracing certain sensational clichés to make her new point.

"I want everyone to know my name," she says.

"Which one?" someone asks.

All of these characters are struggling with their identities, in fact. They play a role for the masses, hiding aspects of their personalities they fear would be rejected or mocked. In an effort to not be defined by others, they enter into stereotypes of their own. Only Lionel, a bespectacled outcast (mostly for identifying as gay), seems to acknowledge the diversity in his own heart—the contradictions inside himself. But even then, he seems to harbor the hope that his oversized afro will compensate for his love of Mumford & Sons.

Then a Winchester fraternity throws a party where everyone's told to come in blackface, dine on fried chicken and watermelon, and engage in every racist cliché imaginable.

The school's chronic racial discomfort has become an acute emergency.

Positive Elements

Exactly how people grapple with racial issues isn't always a clear "positive" or "negative" thing. But the movie rightly pushes us all to understand that the grappling itself must be done. And that at Winchester, like the rest of world, continued change is critical. A clear case of doing that comes when characters take a stand against the racist-themed frat party. (In an admittedly confrontational way.)

Sam's boyfriend (even after he's spurned by her) shows how much he cares for her. He becomes the only person she can turn to after a crisis hits at home.

Spiritual Content

When Sam leads a cadre of her friends to a movie theater to protest the lack of quality films targeted toward African-Americans, they call out Tyler Perry's efforts for being essentially minstrel shows draped in "Christian dogma."

Sexual Content

Sam and Gabe go to her room and begin kissing and stripping off clothes. Afterwards, Sam gets out of bed, revealing her bare backside. It should be noted that she's uncomfortable with her relationship with Gabe in large part because he's white. When he asks her what they're really doing then, she shoots back, "F---ing." It's implied that Troy and his girlfriend also have sex. And after the two break up, Troy and Coco are shown in bed together.

Lionel is assigned to a house that despises him because of his homosexual predilections. Even their answering machine mocks him, making several oral sex references. Frat house leader Kurt drops his pants and exposes himself to Lionel (but not the camera), telling his giggling cohorts that sometimes to talk with "those people," you have to speak in a language they'll understand. When physically threatened by Kurt, Lionel gives his assailant a full-on-mouth smooch, which leads to a serious beating.

Lionel is eventually befriended by college newspaper editor George, and the two kiss several times. We hear some of their sensual "sweet nothings." People make graphic allusions to sex and masturbation. There's talk of "DL" (a reference to bisexual behavior among African-American men).

Violent Content

The pummeling Kurt gives Lionel leaves the young man's face bruised and bloodied. At the infamous frat party, there's scuffling between the partyers and the protestors. Various students are, elsewhere, pelted with bread and napkins. They brandish fake guns.

Crude or Profane Language

About 35 f-words and 15 s-words. We hear a bevy of other outbursts, including "a--," "b--ch," "d--n," "h---" and "p---." "F-g" is used pejoratively a few times, the n-word (by blacks and whites) more than a dozen times. God's name is abused a half-dozen times, half of those times with "d--n." Jesus' name is misused once. People make obscene gestures.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Troy retreats to the bathroom to use a drug pipe (blowing the smoke into a toilet paper tube). He tells Sofia that he's smoking weed and writing jokes, and he rolls and smokes joints as well—as do others on campus.

Troy's father is furious when he learns of the boy's drug use. "You are not going to be what they all think you are," he tells his son. "You are not going to give them that satisfaction."

College students drink frequently—whiskey, beer, etc. Sometimes they guzzle straight from the bottle. A frat party is filled with drunken revelers, and Lionel smashes liquor bottles in one of the rooms. The racist bash boasts what is labeled as "purple drank," a beverage that contains cough syrup.

Other Negative Elements

It's implied that Sam herself had something to do with the racist frat party happening—as a way to provoke a confrontation. And she becomes president of an African-American campus house by way of a rigged vote. Students rant that the Republican party condones and supports racism.

Conclusion

Dear White People is a provocative film, giving no pat conclusions. In the discussion devoted to race, it is itself a discussion, providing a variety of perspectives, introducing us to a number of flawed characters and then letting what they do hang in the air for examination and reaction.

It seems to be dogmatic only on the ideas that racism and prejudice exists, that they are bad, and that there are no easy answers to solving the problems they create.

So what's left for this movie review? Content, of course, and there's lots of it. We see bongs and hookups, a bare backside and homosexual canoodling. We hear rough racial slurs and coarse profanity. People cheat and mislead to push their purposes, engaging in hedonistic behavior. Much of it is gratuitous. And little of it is ever condemned.

College campuses like Winchester are supposed to be places where students can grapple with big ideas and wrestle with discomforting problems. But God and His biggest ideas aren't much welcome at this school, it would seem. His thoughts never come up.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

R

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Tyler James Williams as Lionel Higgins; Tessa Thompson as Sam White; Kyle Gallner as Kurt Fletcher; Teyonah Parris as Colandrea 'Coco' Conners; Brandon Bell as Troy Fairbanks; Brittany Curran as Sofia Fletcher; Justin Dobies as Gabe; Marque Richardson as Reggie; Malcolm Barrett as Helmut West; Dennis Haysbert as Dean Fairbanks; Peter Syvertsen as President Fletcher

Director

Justin Simien ( )

Distributor

Lionsgate

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

October 17, 2014

On Video

February 3, 2015

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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