‘Dear White People’ explores the complexities of black American experience

The jocks, the rich kids, the goths — many are familiar with the cliques of “Mean Girls,” but those groups seem largely voluntary and homogenized. “Dear White People” examines the social organization of “Mean Girls” through the intersection of race. The question of “Why do all the black kids sit at the same lunch table?” becomes “Why do all the black kids eat in the same hall?” Director Justin Simien explores this with careful attention to the reasons that attract and repel individuals to and from this dynamic.

Simien, who also wrote the film, shows the complexities of the black American experience through the eyes of characters attending Winchester University, a predominantly white institution.

Sam White (Tessa Thompson, “For Colored Girls”) is a mixed race woman who radically attempts to raise awareness about race issues on campus through her involvement in campus leadership and her radio show, “Dear White People.” The Black Student Union backs her endeavors, but not all black students do. Colandrea “Coco” Connors (Teyonah Parris, “Mad Men”) attempts to secure her five minutes of fame while doing everything possible to attain the traits of conventional beauty, including long straight hair and blue eyes.

On the other hand, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, “Everybody Hates Chris”) finds himself indifferent to the radical racialized experiences of Sam and Coco, and tries his hardest to navigate life as human, only to find he is discriminated for his sexuality.

The university dean’s (Dennis Haysbert, “Sniper: Legacy”) qualifications have been overlooked in his pursuit of becoming university president. In response to this experience, he forces his son (Brandon P. Bell, “Ascension”) to embody every aspect of the ideal student and citizen.

Each plot line reveals a poignant facet of what it is like to be black in America; no two characters experience it the same way. While each character has a flaw, and many represent an ideological extreme, the film challenges viewers to understand where those behaviors come from.

Some critics have panned the film, calling it divisive. But one can find unity in its effort to help those who haven’t walked these paths to understand their peers who have. Rather than putting any one viewpoint on a pedestal, Simien scrutinizes the motives of each, giving viewers the tools to better understand and sympathize with them.

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UAA will screen the Alaska premiere of “Dear White People” at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium. The film is close captioned. The free event will be followed by a moderated panel discussion between three students, a staff member, and two UAA faculty. The discussion will include sign language interpreters. Those under 17 years old must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian aged 21 or older.