Cast: Tessa Thompson, Justin Dobies, Kyle Gallner, Brandon P. Bell, Teyonah Parris, Tyler James Williams, Marque Richardson II, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Syvertsen
Director: Justin Simien
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's a telling moment near the end of Justin Simien's debut feature Dear White People, where the snooty president of Winchester University's Ivy League campus (played by Peter Syvertsen), addresses Dennis Haysbert's Dean Fairbanks by announcing that "Racism is over in America." The line is purposefully intended as an audience groaner or cheap laugh, but what's most startling about Simien's handling of that scene is that it doesn't come off as an incendiary rant against the narrow-minded white guy's cluelessness. In fact, the strength of Dear White People is that it takes taboo subject matter in regards to race relations and then tweaks it into a probing and undeniably heartfelt inspection into identity confusion seen through the prism of young black Americans. Though there's a streak of topical anger broiling underneath Simien's deft handling of the satirical tone, there's also gentle humor and most surprisingly, genuine emotion that raises Dear White People above the level of mere farce.
We know from a short prologue that the film will be building toward a Halloween party hosted by the campus humor magazine which will explode into a race riot, but the real impetus for the event occurs five weeks prior, with Simien adroitly introducing four interweaving stories taking place at the fictional Winchester University. Though the film cross-cuts between various characters, the main protagonist is tenacious DJ Sam (Tessa Thompson), who runs the button-pushing titular radio show, and whose incendiary remarks, quips, and reactionary monologues are blasted through the school's channels. Sam has a romantic relationship with white T.A. Gabe (Justin Dobies), who often challenges her in-class short films, one of which is a rather sly re-working of The Birth of a Nation for the post-Obama era. Then there's the president and Dean's respective sons, one a bigoted white kid with privilege named Kurt (Kyle Gallner), and the other straight-laced Troy (Brandon P. Bell), an educated black man with aspirations of running for House President based on his knack for speechifying and adopting the white man's racial norms. Rounding out the ensemble are Colandrea (Teyonah Parris), who retreats from her inherent "blackness" by straightening her hair and dating only white men, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a timid afro-wearing misfit who's ceaselessly tormented for being both black and gay. If this sounds like a lot of characters for Simien to juggle, he compounds the problem by having the majority of them speak in a theatrically stilted tone, firing off witty asides and topical arguments with dizzying abandon. Sometimes, he has multiple actors crowding into the frame, staged in an almost Wes Anderson bit of compositional whimsy, while at others, he allows two or three characters to face off in dueling verbal matches that ping-pong around with an ingenuity and wit rarely seen in modern movies these days. To say Dear White People is overstuffed would be an understatement; but in this instance, it's to the film's credit, since the sociopolitical issues it's raising are incredibly complex.
Though Simien is obviously couching his story under the guise of satire; complete with arch dialogue and playfully stylized compositions, there are just too many moments with the ring of painful truth to classify it merely as a comedic satire. What could have played as an extended series of youtube-style sketches with talking heads exposing racial talking points, instead blooms into something more timely and provocative. Though Spike Lee is clearly an influence here (his name is actually mentioned during conversations a few times), it would have been easy for Simien to simply adopt Lee's sledgehammer approach to addressing racial concerns, demonizing "whitey" and making a barbed attack against gentrification. Simien, however, goes one further, lumping black culture's confusion about their own social identity in with the racially-charged ignorance of the white man. More than anything, his film is a heartfelt call for a sense of belonging and acceptance, though he's smart enough of a writer to never offer facile answers to the race-related obstacles that plague our country.
Since Dear White People is trying to cover so much ground in terms of it's ideological thrust, it's only natural that not everything Simien throws at the wall sticks. Some of the jokes, such as Gremlins being about the suburban white fear of black culture, the fixation white people have with touching afros, and throwaway lines regarding mexicans seem like familiar territory made for easy laughs. The line about Mexicans being the only ones truly worried about racism in America is especially problematic since Simien completely marginalizes that ethnicity from his picture. Still, the talented writer-director understands what it means to be young, black, and attending a University in America (he graduated from Chapman University), and this new wave of institutionalized racism that's spread under the Obama era feels extremely topical.
Best of all, Simien draws expressive, vibrant performances from his ensemble. If this had just been an ideological essay sans human warmth and emotion, it would likely have felt more didactic, but Simien allows his actors the freedom to inhabit their characters, even if they are mostly stereotypes commenting upon stereotypes. Bell is charismatic and thoughtful as a kind of college-age Obama figure, adept at rhetoric and appealing to all races, but whose penchant for smoking pot and writing jokes in the bathroom also comments on the marijuana-obsessed black comedian on hand to entertain us. Marque Richardson II is also solid as passionate rebel Reggie, a young man who sees Sam as his ideological equal, and whose quick-witted line readings and way with a reaction shot give his scenes a heightened sense of energy. Williams plays Lionel at first as the typical shy kid in over his head, but then subverts expectations with a scene where he kisses his boss at the local newspaper; a scene, by the way, that's meant to draw out an audience reaction more than anything. Smartly, Simien lumps in Lionel's homosexuality with the societal disdain other straight black characters face, and then turns his lens unto the audience. Are we groaning during the kiss scene, and if so, what does that say about our own buried prejudice? Of course, the real star here, aside from Simien's ambitious screenplay, is Thompson as Sam. Being incredibly photogenic surely helps, but Thompson gives her intelligent film student a wounded vulnerability simmering beneath her tough, sarcastic veneer that makes her third act monologue about her upbringing all the more poignant. This is a star-making performance in a film that really needs it to soar, and Thompson delivers something simultaneously confident and fragile.
Of course, once Dear White People unveils it's cards at the nauseatingly racist Halloween party, things move from the pang of satirical truth into the realm of all-out documentation of real-life, complete with a disturbing credits crawl. Perhaps Simien's greatest triumph here is having his characters talk in a clipped, psuedo-intellectual tenor that more or less approximates the way people discuss race-related subject matter in the media these days. If "Satire is the weapon of reason", as one character states in the film, then Simien wields it like a murdering axe, dismantling the idea that we have moved into a new era devoid of the things that separate us.