Director: Justin Simien
Runtime: 100 minutes
"What's the big deal, we have a black president!" "Racism is over!" "It was years ago! Move on!" "We live in a post racial society!" All of the above are statements that have been used to combat charges of modern day racism. We've all heard them. Hell, many of us have probably even used one at some point. Sometimes, they are used out of well intentioned ignorance. And other times, they're just a crappy cover for a desire to get away with saying something awful and pretend that racism in America was switched off like a light switch after the Civil Rights marches of the 60s. Dear White People, the feature debut of writer/director Justin Simien, is here to say otherwise. And even though his film - which started as a mock trailer for a film about modern race relations - has plenty of hallmarks of first time filmmaking, it's an uncommonly sharp and articulate take on an uncomfortable topic that many often wish to sweep under the rug.
No doubt, the film's title got your attention. It should. Dear White People has something to say for everyone about identity, but above all it's a biting dissection of a perfect microcosm of socio-economic and racial privilege. Leading the charge of social change at Winchester College - the film's fictional Ivy League setting - is biracial student Sam White (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio show is the source of the film's title. In it, she intelligently and sarcastically confronts the type of racial micro-aggressions that generally fly under the radar when it comes to pointing out racism. Example: "Dear White People, the number of black friends required to not seem racist has been razed to two." On top of this, she's recently been elected president of the campus' predominantly black dorm, heads the black student union, and is secretly involved with a charming T.A. Who happens to be white.
Simien could easily just make the entire film about Tessa calling out ignorant or insensitive behavior, but his goal with Dear White People goes beyond a simple wake up call to our collective complacent mindset. Among Winchester's other notable residents are the strapping Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) who's currently dating the white daughter of the school's president, Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) an aspiring Youtube star living in Sam's shadow, and painfully shy Lionel (Tyler James Williams), who defines himself more by his sexual orientation than by his race. Dear White People is very much an ensemble piece, and its messages benefit immensely from this approach.
As Simien's screenplay picks apart the emotional and ethical ambiguities of his characters, he turns Dear White People into a relate and universal experience. The surface conflicts may be about tensions between blacks and whites, but the way Simien's characters discuss image, race, and identity politics transcends the specifics of the story. He also deserves credit for integrating a concise lesson on the difference between racism and prejudice.
The racism vs. prejudice message comes from Sam, and as delivered by Ms. Thompson, it epitomizes the pithiness of Simien's writing. Of his young cast, it's likely that only Williams (from the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris) will look familiar, but all of the student roles are handled with aplomb. It's one thing to write good characters, and another to find people capable of bringing them to life. Simien and his casting director have done a superb job in this department.
Thompson, whose role is closest to the film's own perspective, is especially effective at tackling Simien's serrated wit along with the film's genuine emotional core. Williams does a fine job of charting Lionel's growth from passive bystander to socially conscious leader, and Bell captures Troy's conflicting traits while maintaining consistency. Teyonah Parris also deserves special mention for elegantly portraying Simien's most ambiguous character. Coco (short for Colandrea, which she feels white people won't respect) is caught between wanting to exist as a black woman, yet also gives in to the idea that she should cater to what white peers expect her to be. If forced to choose between being herself and a shot at fame....well....it's hard to figure out exactly what choice she would make, and whether or not she'd feel a significant amount of regret.
Through all of this, Simien never goes overboard with his social commentary or his attempts at humor. For a first feature, Dear White People is remarkably restrained. It's neither a condescending lecture nor a strained attempt to throw out jokes in favor of character development. When Simien's jokes arrive, they are carefully considered and impeccably-timed. Oh, and they're funny. Very, very funny. And when the film wants to make you uncomfortable? Well, it sure as hell succeeds at that. If you think the film's climactic "ghetto" themed party is cringe-inducing, just wait until you see the real-life examples cited in the end credits. There's a point where an attempt at satire becomes the very thing that it wishes to mock or undermine. By the end of Dear White People, you'll likely have the difference memorably etched into your brain as you squirm in your seat.
However, it ought to be noted that Simien the writer and Simien the director aren't always on the exact same page. Though there are some stylistic homages to the 70s and the early films of Spike Lee, Simien's execution is a bit too muted for its own good. The writing and acting are often enough to compensate, but Dear White People veers toward sluggishness despite the emotional dynamism displayed by the talented cast. And, as good as the the actors are in their roles, Phillip Bartell's editing doesn't always do them justice. Subplots are pieced together in ways that bring characters together for important moments which feel out of the blue. Williams is supposed to write a profile on Sam's student leadership, but does so mostly from afar. And then, all of the sudden, he's in her dorm room having a heart to heart, even though it feels like they've spent the whole movie on separate continents.
These grievances, however, should not deter one from seeking out Dear White People as it begins opening this month. Issues of race are uncomfortable to deal with (that's putting it mildly). It's even tougher to deal with them elegantly. In Dear White People, Simien has announced that he's more than capable of carrying the torch as we chart our course through the 21st century. With a voice like Simien's, hopefully our navigation will start to finally improve.