When we first meet Sam White (Tessa Thompson), she’s speaking on her college radio show, Dear White People. She’s got opinions about the racial culture of her Ivy League college, and the serve both as a manifesto for the black students who want to be heard and a reminder to everyone else – who think seeing Good Hair means they know everything – that they know nothing.
As we meet the characters that populate this fictional college, it feels as if the radio show never stopped. It continues throughout, with each character’s dialogue feeling like it’s own radio channel. Opinions are given and expressed, and it becomes difficult to understand where the speech ends and the character begins.
But that’s the point. Everyone at this school is a walking facade, trying their best to establish their place in the world by espousing the cultural conversation they think they should push. Sam wants everyone to know the black students won’t be pushed around; the main white character, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), wants his little college magazine to mean something. They’re all chasing something, even if they’re not sure exactly what it is. And so it goes – characters getting angry and struggling with the intangible.
The movie continues to build towards an all-out culture war on campus until it hits an almost literal crossroad: just before Sam is about to join a protest that her followers have been clamoring for, a protest she’s not even sure is the right thing to do, she gets a phone call that stops everything. For the first time in the film, she seems human. She has feelings. She has family she cares about. And she retreats. It’s a necessary reprieve from the escalating atmosphere, a way to show us that deep down, these are just kids struggling to find and fight for their place in the world.
The film’s climatic moments, at an incredibly racist college campus party that’s unfortunately ripped from the real world headlines, show just how far we haven’t come. The culture is still bruised and tattered. Misunderstandings are as ever-present as before. The school’s president and vice-president show they’re not as interested in fixing it as they are in getting some cash and attention off it.
But writer/director Justin Simien, understanding that underneath it all we’re built with the same needs and wants, pulls back the focus at the end to show us what motivates Sam. It’s not about the radio show. It’s not about the uprising. It’s about having a place in which you can comfortably hold the hand of someone who looks different from you and no one will care. Of course, the student body walking by notices Sam’s final gesture. It shows how far we haven’t come and still have to go. But Dear White People is an impassioned, entertaining reminder that we’re made far more of the same things than we’re not.