DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
*** (out of 5)
October 24, 2014
Tyler James Williams as LIONEL HIGGINS
Tessa Thompson as SAM WHITE
Kyle Gallner as KURT FLETCHER
Teyonah Parris as COLANDREA “COCO” CONNERS
Brandon P. Bell as TROY FAIRBANKS
Brittany Curran as SOFIA FLETCHER
Justin Dobies as GABE
Marque Richardson as REGGIE
Malcolm Barrett as HELMET WEST
Dennis Haysbert as DEAN FAIRBANKS
Peter Syvertsen as PRESIDENT FLETCHER
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Directed by: Justin Simien
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
As straightforward of a satire as “Dear White People” is, it also can be looked at as a symbol of the problems it is trying to tackle. On one hand, it makes a lot of very solid points and brings a lot of embarrassing aspects of modern society into focus as possible talking points. On the other hand, it attempts to tackle a problem that is far bigger than any movie could hope to be, and in doing so reveals how challenging the issue is and how everybody seems to have a different opinion on the truth behind it.
I’m not sure if this level of meta-thinking was what writer/director Justin Simien was going for, but he achieves it, even if it doesn’t result in the most cohesive movie when all is said and done.
“Dear White People” tells the story of a fictional ivy league university where racial tensions are brewing. It’s an ensemble piece, focusing on several storylines. The main arcs involve Sam White (Tessa Thompson), an activist campus radio show host who dishes out her own witty form of in-your-face challenges to the mainstream status quo. The other main arc follows Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an gay black student who doesn’t feel he fits in anywhere. As school politics are aired throughout the campus, things come to a head when a politically incorrect Halloween party makes national news.
On the surface, “Dear White People” appears to be an activist farce, defining itself by a very aggressive title and trailer that plays like a BuzzFeed video. However, once you get through the first act where all the stereotypes and cliches of racial problems are given a name and a face, there’s a lot more going on. Soon, we realize that Sam White isn’t just a female version of the angry black man we saw in exploitation movies in the 1970s. She puts on a good front, but she soon discovers that her rabble rousing is much easier to do when she isn’t in a position of power. And she is also given more depth than her own self-imposed (and sometimes inaccurate) stereotype allows.
It’s actually the character of Lionel that is the most interesting because he embodies the independent thinker who doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a group, no matter whether society or people in general feel he should be.
The set-up of the film takes its time to vent about how some people (though hardly not all white people) do inappropriate things, like bean-counting your black friend to prove you’re not racist or touching a black person’s hair. (For the record, I’ve never done either of those things, and I imagine that there’s a lot of white America that doesn’t do that, either.) This is, of course, played off with comedic effect, and it does make the movie much more buzz worthy. However, Simien and his characters don’t know what it’s like to be a white person any more than me (or any other white person) knows what it’s like to be a black person. Simien indulges in a little bit of race-baiting and the blame game here, but I do commend him for pushing past this and actually getting to the point eventually.
Like many topical comedies that have intriguing premises, “Dear White People” does suffer from some cohesion issues once the first act is over. Overt jokes about race will only take the movie so far. In the second act, the film loses focus and tries to juggle too many things. Eventually, things converge again near the end, presenting the awkward but true-to-life thug Halloween party that features rich white kids all ghettoed up in black face and corn rows. Simien is happy to point out the hypocrisy of white culture wanting to act and look black with fake tans, butt implants and high-priced Jay-Z tickets. However, he does pull his punches a bit for black culture defining what’s cool and edgy only to try to claim an exclusivity on such broad concepts.
Still, these kinds of parties actually have happened, and it is definitely worth shining a spotlight on inappropriate behavior of privileged college students. (Of course, this begs the question of whether privileged college students are really that difficult of a target for chiding inappropriate behavior.)
In the film, there are no easy answers, and every character has a different, often conflicting view on what needs to be done. Here’s where the film serves as a microcosm of society itself, whether that was the director’s specific intention or not. Still, there’s no denying that “Dear White People” is a conversation starter for a discussion that has no easy answer.