By Susan Maas
Photo: Naomi Ko, third from right, in a scene from Dear White People
How does actor Naomi Ko (B.A. ’11), know that Dear White People —in which she plays a close friend of the film’s main character—is striking a nerve?
The hate mail, for starters, mainly from people who haven’t actually seen the film but denounce it based on its title alone. “I’ve gotten a lot of very angry emails calling the film racist,” the Rosemount, Minnesota, native says.
Audiences, however, have responded enthusiastically to the critically heralded satire, which takes place at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University and was filmed in part on the University of Minnesota campus. Directed by Justin Simien and also starring Dennis Haysbert, the film sold out instantly when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently acquired by Lionsgate Films.
Ko, who double-majored in English and art history, plays Sungmi, the best friend of Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), the film’s protagonist and host of a provocative radio show called Dear White People. The film follows the two of them, and several other students, as they confront stereotypes and racial tensions at the predominantly white school.
Ko describes her character, Sungmi, as “a free spirit. She’s not the Asian American stereotype—she’s not a math major, she’s an art student with a lip ring. She speaks out, she gets angry. She doesn’t mess around.”
The fact that Ko and Sungmi have art history in common was coincidental. But while she characterizes her time at the U as positive, she says that some of the challenges experienced by students of color in Dear White People felt achingly familiar.
Sometimes in class, she recalls, “people would ask me where I was from. And I’d say, Rosemount . . . my entire K-12 education was in Rosemount. And they’d say, ‘no, no, where are you from?’ And I’d say, ‘well, I was born at the United Methodist hospital in Minneapolis.’ People were shocked that I could be a Minnesotan. I didn’t feel like I fully belonged.”
Still, her connection to the U remains strong. Ko credits English professor Josephine Lee with reigniting her interest in performing arts, which she’d abandoned after high school. In addition to acting on stage and in films, Ko recently wrote a screenplay and is producing a web series.
She hopes Dear White People will resonate with, and promote greater understanding in, audience members of all colors. “What I love is that everyone in the film is human. It’s not one-sided.” As the Sundance description puts it, “Nothing is black and white in this playful portrait of race in contemporary America.”
Viewers feel compassion even for the film’s most entitled and badly behaved character, Ko says. “This film makes you think, why are these things happening? It’s an exploration of the why.”