When Tessa Thompson was up for the lead in the indie film Dear White People, she sent a note to director Justin Simien with her audition tape: "Even if I don't get the part, I can't wait to see this movie!" Thompson feels it's long past time for a main character like Sam White, a fearless biracial radio DJ at a fictional Ivy League university. "Yes, there's Scandal, but a woman of color leading a movie is still rare," says the 31-year-old. "Sam is no girlfriend or sidekick. She's the center of the story—with a lot to say."

Simien's first feature film, which took home the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance this year, tells the story of four African American college students who encounter everything from the N word to a blackface party on campus. Clearly, the opinionated Sam has plenty of material for her radio show: "Dear white people," she spouts, "the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two."

For Thompson, it wasn't difficult to relate to what Simien calls "being a black face in a white place." "I understood Sam's challenges with her identity and wanting it to make sense to others," says Thompson, who's of African, Panamanian, Mexican and European descent. She hopes the film will spark more conversation about race: "The movie is heavy, but it's also peppered with humor and levity. Discussing race doesn't have to be confrontational. We all just want to be heard." Catch Dear White People in theaters this month.


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