Racism is over in America.
That’s the conclusion reached by far too many people in the real world apparently, and the new film Dear White People sets out to address those opinions on both sides of the color-divide through a combination of frequent laughs and a sharply farcical commentary. If Higher Learning and P.C.U. spent a drunken night together this would be the frowned-upon result of that union. Just don’t call it a movilatto.
Winchester University is an Ivy League school populated primarily with white students, but the campus ignites with controversy after one of the houses hosts a racially-fueled party inviting people to come celebrate and liberate their “inner negro.” We then jump back several weeks in the lives of a quartet of black students who find their own personal agendas intertwined and altered leading up to the party.
Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is at the center of it all thanks to her campus radio show and its signature segment, “Dear White People,” where she offers advice to pale students struggling to navigate the dangerous waters of race relations. (“Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has been raised… to two.) Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), by contrast, is trying to avoid the spotlight. He’s black, gay, and more into Mumford & Sons than rap, but while he doesn’t hide who he is he’s at his most comfortable sitting on the sidelines as an observer (and writer for the school paper).
Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is head of his campus house, dating the university president’s (white) daughter, and looking forward to a future in politics. He’s also Samantha’s ex and the son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert). Colandrea “Coco” Connors (Teyonah Parris) is a dark-skinned, weave-wearing go-getter whose goal is to play whatever game is necessary to find success on a new reality TV auditioning for “interesting” people.
Also along for the comically race-baiting ride are Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the president’s son and head of the house hosting the questionably themed party, and his sister Sophie (Brittany Curran) who’s dating Troy. (Ahem, “Dear White People, dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”) Finally, stuck at the intersection of charming and bland is Gabe (Justin Dobies). He’s currently seeing Samantha on the sly because she fears it would distract from her appearance as a proud black woman.
Writer/director Justin Simien‘s feature debut is a fantastically entertaining comedy that finds itself amid the laughs. Characters pass judgements and stereotypical assumptions, and the film smacks them down with singular fervor. They think they’re in a war of black vs white, but the film avoids the misstep so many of its characters take. The narrative is obviously leaned heavily to one side, but the message is not.
Unlike John Singleton’s angry, melodramatic diatribe back in 1995, Simien’s film gives everyone an equal voice and acknowledges that truth and humanity are shared commodities. That said, he’s not implying that the things everyone says are of equal value… because that’s just dumb. (See just about any internet comment thread for confirmation.)
The onscreen talent are no slouches either as each of them bring a real energy and investment to the film. Thompson stands out for her vitality and beauty (inside and out) that radiate from the screen alongside a performance that’s just comical enough to earn laughs from little more than her various expressions. Williams, best known for TV’s Everybody Hates Chris, already shows a mastery of understated comic delivery and is allowed multiple opportunities to shine here.
For as much as the script gets right though there are a few problems. A subplot involving Samantha’s dad is little more than a tangent, but it’s expected to wring emotion it never had the time to earn. Some of the observations are a bit too on the nose and cliched, and (sin of movie sins) we get a flashback in the film to a scene that we just watched earlier in the film. Seriously, if the audience needs reminding of something they saw an hour earlier than either they’re idiots or you’ve done something wrong. Finally, some of the characters’ statements aren’t as challenged as they should be. I’m looking at you “Black people can’t be racist…”
Dear White People succeeds because it delivers its message with common sense and wisdom instead of a heavy hand. Everyone learns here. Black, white, gay, straight… no one person has all the answers or a copyright on the final truth of being human. Ultimately, the only ‘us vs them’ that matters is between those who get it and those who don’t. But hey, if that’s not enough to get your ass in a theater seat there are also jokes about big black dicks, “purple drank,” and white people’s obsession with touching Afros.
The Upside: Frequently funny; avoids a preachy, didactic attitude; smart in its approach; Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams
The Downside: Some script elements don’t work; the effort to avoid an agenda may constrict the ultimate message
On the Side: Lest you think the incendiary party is a fictional construct, the end credits feature photographs from the past few years highlighting similar events at colleges across the country.
Our review of Dear White People originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release.