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Black Students Gather At Harvard To Watch 'Dear White People'


A new film out this Friday takes on an edgy topic right from the title. It's called "Dear White People." It's a satire about race and identity set at a fictitious Ivy League college. First-time director Justin Simien is being compared to Spike Lee.

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji of our Code Switch team went to see the film with black students at a real Ivy League college.

MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: It's Harvard, where black students gathered from across the country to discuss activism in the age of social media at the I, Too, Am Harvard conference.

ABI MARIAM: Well, I'm Abi. Nice to meet you.

MERAJI: Senior Abi Mariam checks in students attending the event sparked by the I, Too, Am Harvard Tumbler that went viral last spring, featuring photographs...

MARIAM: Of Harvard students holding up a whiteboard with a micro-aggression that they have encountered. You know - I'm blacker than you are, or, can I touch your hair? You know, like - oh my gosh, you're so pretty for a black girl.

MERAJI: Mariam says those small digs can make black Harvard students feel unwelcome in a place that's supposed to be home for a few years. The new satire "Dear White People" touches on just that and a screening of the film kicked off the I, Too, Am Harvard conference.

For the students who are usually one of just a few black faces in Lecture Hall C at Harvard's Science Center, tonight's the opposite and the room is packed. On screen, fictional Winchester University is home to film student Samantha White and her radio show.


TESSA THOMPSON: (As Samantha White) Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count.

MERAJI: In dulcet tones, she schools her white peers on ways to avoid racist micro-aggressions, but Sam's half-white and has a secret boyfriend who's all-white and calls her out on her faux black power identity.

JUSTIN DOBIES: (As Gabe) Your favorite director is Bergman but you tell people it's Spike Lee. You love bebop but you've got a thing for Taylor Swift. And I know because my Mac picks up your Mac's library.

MERAJI: The character who emerges as the film's unlikely hero? Lionel Higgins. He's a gay sci-fi nerd with an Afro who seems uncomfortable with his blackness. But when he gets word of a party where white students in blackface are eating watermelon and mocking hip-hop culture, he goes to the Black Student Union.

TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS: (As Lionel Higgins) Hi. I'm Lionel. I just came from this party and I feel like you guys should know about it.

MERAJI: There are other layered characters you meet along the way, not to mention video blogging, lots of texting and a reality show producer trying to cash in on all the drama. It's complicated, much like race and identity politics in the era of social media and a black president.

And this Harvard crowd is feeling it.


KIMIKO MATSUDA-LAWRENCE: It just felt like you were watching your life up on screen. It really did.

MERAJI: Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence is a junior at Harvard majoring in history, literature and African-American studies.

MATSUDA-LAWRENCE: I really related to a lot of the characters, especially Sam White. I was like, oh, my gosh, this girl is me. You know, it's like this mixed girl, like super militant, but also like, with her own identity issues.

MERAJI: Phillip Moss is a freshman at Duke and says he can see himself in Lionel.

PHILLIP MOSS: Very much because I was in advanced classes. One of the things that I got a lot of the times was, Phillip, you're white on the inside, you just have a little black on your skin. Also I had an Afro and everybody wanted to touch it.

MERAJI: Director Justin Simien says he was also Lionel his freshman year at Chapman University, a private college in Southern California, but graduated as the militant Sam. In a Q and A with the students he added that he wanted to write on-screen characters in situations that were relatable to him. But in an earlier version of the script he took out the blackface party, telling himself it was over the top.


JUSTIN SIMIEN: I'm doing way too much, I need to pull back a little bit. And a few months later that happened - and I was like, oh, OK.


SIMIEN: Got it. Ok, got it. Got it, universe.

MERAJI: The universe brought Simien a string of real blackface parties at colleges across the country. Tiffany Loftin was an undergrad in 2010 at UC Santa Cruz and remembers them well. Three took place at different UCs that year. Loftin said it was affirming to see art imitate life at tonight's screening, but she worries the director is just preaching to the choir.

TIFFANY LOFTIN: I would love to see a balanced body of white and black people in the theater to be able to do this because if you have all white people, it's problematic because they don't get it. If you have all black people, it's funny and we already get it.

MERAJI: And she says while provocative, the title "Dear White People" might scare off the folks who need to see it most.

In the Q and A, Simeon responded to that sentiment saying the title was provocative on purpose, to create buzz. But he told the Harvard audience they also need to do their part to get people to see it.


SIMIEN: If you are passionate about this and you want to see more complicated, interesting characters of color on the screen, if you want to see yourself represented and reflected in the culture - then you've got to drag your friends to see this movie. We don't get more of these unless we support it. In this town, you get what you pay what for.


MERAJI: "Dear White People" is in theaters this Friday, October 17th.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.