I read enough about Dear White People before seeing it that I thought I knew what to expect: a scorching political satire about a diverse group of black students at a prestigious, predominantly white university in the weeks leading up to a horrifying, ripped-from-the-headlines blackface party. It certainly is that, an incisive look at not only how smart, ambitious people of all different skin tones and experiences talk about race in America, but also what’s behind those words. What took me by surprise was the subtlety with which it dramatized a slightly different conflict — the internal conflict between art and politics that can become the turning point of a creative, principled young person’s life.
[Spoiler alert: This piece discusses major plot twists in Dear White People, including its ending.]
In the case of Dear White People, that young person is Sam White, played with an elegant mix of swagger and vulnerability by Tessa Thompson. A biracial student filmmaker whose darkly funny radio show gives the movie its title, Sam becomes the mouthpiece for black activism at the fictional Ivy League institution Winchester University. Her profile rises after she ousts her apolitical, high-achieving ex-boyfriend, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), from his position as head of their all-black dorm and uses her newfound power to expel disrespectful white kids from its dining hall. Convinced that the real aim of the Winchester administration’s plan to integrate the residence is to quell African-American radicalism on campus, Sam and her Black Student Union friends set to work organizing against it.
In most films, this is where Sam’s development would end. But Dear White People filmmaker Justin Simien wrote a much more complex human being than that. As she speechifies and power plays, she’s also on the phone with her mom about her father’s failing health. Eventually, we find out that Sam’s harshly critical white film-class TA, Justin Dobies’ Gabe, is also her fuck buddy. Due, in large part, to her guilt over not dating a black man, she’s in serious denial that their arrangement is blossoming into a romance.
What truly makes Sam a rare and refreshing character, though, is that she’s got the soul of an artist. As she becomes increasingly disillusioned with the BSU crowd, who want to make her a symbol of the polite, by-the-book, and almost certainly ineffectual resistance they practice, it’s her genius for creative disruption that pushes Winchester’s race problem onto the national stage.
This is Dear White People‘s big twist, and though sometimes the film’s plot beats fail to match its observant dialogue and nuanced character development, it’s a brilliant one: The prestigious Harvard Lampoon-like campus humor magazine is responsible for the culminating blackface party, and whichever prospective member writes the “hilarious” invitation its leaders use is guaranteed a place on staff. Two of Sam’s dorm mates, Troy and Coco (née Colandrea, played by Mad Men‘s Teyonah Parris), are desperate for a spot at the white boys’ poker table that is the magazine, and we’re led to believe that one of them composed the jaw-droppingly offensive invite. In fact, in the end, neither can stomach the party’s racist spectacle — which Simien renders so unflinchingly that it’s sure to hit all but the most jaded and apathetic viewers on a visceral level.
The only character who has always understood the magnitude of her peers’ bigotry is Sam, who both inspires the party through her militance and, it turns out, anonymously submits the winning invitation. In a single move, she beats her nemesis (Kyle Gallner as privileged brat Kurt Fletcher) at the magazine at his own game, makes him and his fratty staff the public face of on-campus racism in America, and succeeds where demonstrations and flyer campaigns have failed in waking up Winchester to its systemic race problem. In writing the invitation, she sneakily casts the humor mag house’s guffawing residents and their guests in her work of performance art. Then, she appears at the party with a camera to record what happens when elite white college students are given free reign to act out the black stereotypes they hate, fear, and in some cases envy.
This footage culminates in Sam’s first fully realized film, one that wins over her classmates simply by holding up a mirror to an issue she’d belabored and oversimplified in a previous project. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who found Dear White People too moderate, reads this outcome as an argument from Simien that “the politicized student should become less so.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sam’s transformation marks the moment when a young, creative person with strong political convictions learns how to marry the two in a way that resonates with her audience, and, in doing so, evolves into a mature artist.
As Gabe notes in an exhilarating monologue near the end of the film, Sam isn’t less politicized than she used to be — she’s an anarchist, and her chaos-inciting tactics resemble a movement no less radical than situationism. When she realizes that the BSU’s tactics aren’t working, she formulates a strategy that only she is capable of executing. Instead of preaching her politics, she’s living them. Instead of railing against what’s wrong with the world, she’s forcing others to see what she sees. This isn’t a retreat, or even a compromise; like Dear White People itself, it’s an acknowledgment — and a demonstration — that art and politics are inextricably linked, more potent when combined than each could ever be on its own.