NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Dear White People opens Oct. 17th.
How many times have you heard some fool say “We have a black President so racism must be over”? How many stories have we seen in just the last couple of years about white people throwing black-themed parties full of insulting racial stereotypes? No other film came with more pre-festival buzz than Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, particularly amongst the black community expecting a blistering new voice similar to a Spike Lee. There’s no doubt Simien has a lot to say about race relations in a supposedly post-racial America, but a lack of focus on the core issues and a ponderous script muddle any message to today’s young black generation.
A wannabe taking many of its cues from Spike Lee’s School Daze, the film aims to be a scathing, satirical examination of race relations in the Obama era, set against the backdrop of a posh Ivy League university. A heightened aggression permeates the grounds of fictional Winchester University; think Higher Learning meets P.C.U.; thanks to a new randomized housing policy that threatens the predominantly black Armstrong-Parker House. Samantha (a ferocious Tessa Thompson), is a “black power” radical stoking the fires with a controversial radio show called “Dear White People”. It’s there that she throttles up the tension with quippy verbal put-downs like “Dear white people, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two.”, or “Dear white people, dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” An over-crowded cast of characters represent all sides of black society, which much like School Daze are constantly at war. The antithesis of the militant Sam is rich kid Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the classic non-threatening black guy who tries to be friends with all sides. He’s the president of Armstrong/Parker and seeks to make his father (Dennis Haysbert) happy by climbing the social ladder and maintaining a relationship with his white girlfriend. There’s also aspiring reality star Coco (Teyonah Parris), a weave-wearing fame seeker looking to hook up with the white trust-fund kids, and squash Sam in an effort to get more followers for her YouTube show. All of this is seen through the eyes of gay journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a true outsider amongst perceived outsiders who can’t find a place where he and his giant afro can fit in.
Simien’s script is at its funniest when at its most confrontational, touching on a number of keen, pointed observations on the subtleties of racism. Tackling issues of prejudice in politics, affirmative action, and the abundance of insulting Tyler Perry movies. The megaphone for most of this is Sam, who struggles with identity while hiding behind an Angela Davis attitude in an effort to please her followers. Through her the film touches upon casual racism perpetrated by unaware whites who think they are being open-minded when they say “You’re only technically black!” to someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype. A highlight has Sam finding racism in the movie Gremlins; breaking it down as white fear of blacks invading suburban America (the gremlins talk slang, are addicted to chicken, and get upset when their hair is wet).
The problem with Dear White People has nothing to do with the content, which tackles a number of hot-button topics and presents a diverse swath of African-Americans that we rarely see on the big screen. To the film’s credit, it’s not just an angry screed against white people, and all sides are shown to have their flaws and prejudices. In his debut feature, Simien puts all of his eggs into one basket when a complicated film such as this requires a narrower focus. While the dialogue often comes off as too clever by half and self-congratulatory, the real issue is that the film is unwieldy with stagnant subplots. Troy’s attempts to get in good with an arrogant white faction aren’t resolved satisfactorily, and another involving his father’s feud with the university president goes nowhere. Perhaps most disappointing of all is the treatment of Lionel, whose sexual/racial confusion feels like an afterthought, even though his character best embodies Simien’s central point that nobody fits neatly into any one label.
Dear White People doesn’t quite have the same blend of fire and insight as Lee’s early work, but it’s bold enough to ask the tough questions and make you laugh at the answers.