THE BLOG
11/24/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Dear White People : Diversity at the University

Dear Justin Simien,

Just wanted to write back to thank you for your film Dear White People. Oh sure, Dear White People was a bit critical of race relations. But it was smart, funny and energetic. The movie could have been even more trenchant. But it didn't exactly tiptoe through the minefield either. You were also kind enough to give us a bit of hope at the end. Speaking on behalf of all white people, I'd like to accept your lean toward mercy and charity.

To begin with, it is an honor to get any invitation to a place like Winthrop University -- even just to drop in for two hours to observe. After all, the very selective Winthrop trains our best and brightest, whom we've historically assumed to be white. It has been a while, but I'm still familiar with such places, having squeezed through despite the old 10-percent quotas for people like me.

Hanging out with such a diverse, fully realized group was refreshing. Some were a bit too easily recognizable types -- the toady conservative, the intellectual nerd, the rebel without a clue. Others had the depth and promise of a newer age -- the gay reporters, interracial daters and ambitious but conflicted ingenues. Yet as the situation on campus changed, some seemed to grow and find themselves, while others shrunk and lost.

Chief protagonist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is quite conscious of her mixed roots and secret white boyfriend. Her second-class treatment at Winthrop and the incursion of whites into the Black Residential House sparks her Dear White People radio shows. Sam wins the presidency of the Black House, beating the incumbent black establishment candidate Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), whose father (Dennis Haysbert) is the university's dean.

Troy seeks redemption by running for president of the entire Winthrop student body. He tries to ingratiate himself with white students organizing an African-American-themed fraternity party complete with blackface. But no manner of abasement will satisfy the obnoxious organizer of the white fraternity party, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), who, less than coincidentally, is the son of the university president and the brother of Troy's ex.

The party is the culmination of growing expressions of campus racism. White party planners take license. Old stereotypes are exhumed. Not only are the whites in blackface, but symbols of slavery, the Confederacy and imputed black inferiority are the party's backdrop. The only thing missing was Rush Limbaugh piped through the sound system.

Wading into this toxic melee to challenge it is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams). Lionel has spent much of the film wandering like Ulysses between different living situations and friends. He's a keen but passive observer, an out gay who is generally accepted though not embraced. Introspective and thoughtful, he is not a Tyler Perry character. Lionel's action turns the film.

So some questions are answered, and some questions are asked. Will love prevail with Sam staying with her devoted white boyfriend? Will Troy win the student-body presidency? Will the campus disruptions alienate or attract its rich alumni? And Justin, you have said that you were more influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen than Spike Lee, so will your next film go beyond race and deal more with class and psychological dynamics? Will your next vehicle be to dear everyone? Looking forward to hearing more from you very soon!

Sincerely,
Michael Berkowitz