Dear White People (2014) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content and drug use
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Dennis Haysbert, Kyle Gallner, Marque Richardson, Peter Syvertsen, Justin Dobies, Brittany Curran, Brandon Alter, Kate Gaulke, Keith Myers
Director: Justin Simien
Screenplay: Justin Simien
Review published October 26, 2014
Dear White People feels like an amalgam of Spike Lee's early work, combining the racial commentary of Do the Right Thing with the setting of School Daze, and the relationship issues espoused in She's Gotta Have It and Jungle Fever. I could mention Mo Better Blues if it featured musicians to round out the top five, but it kinda has enough jazz in the soundtrack and references to the genre to merit that comparison too. But it's not because it's a film about race or African-Americans that draws most of the comparisons so much as the film's style, with Lee's penchant for such things as characters looking directly at the screen, a collection of interweaving storylines, the use of title cards, and the last act where all of the simmering plot elements begin to boil in a finale that draws out just how serious the issues lampooned can be.
The setting is the fictional Ivy League college called Winchester University, an institution that believes it is doing just fine in a post-racial environment where the white and black students mingle in harmony. Not everyone feels that way, especially Samantha White (Thompson, When a Stranger Calls), a militant voice heard on the school's radio station, called "Dear White People", that regularly calls out the Caucasian mentality around campus for its lack of true inclusion of the minority factions into their fold, even if they aren't being deliberately antagonistic. Nevertheless, even in the Obama era, frat parties at different schools have resulted in white kids dressing up as various ethnicities and fostering unflattering stereotypes, which is something this film explores with gusto as the story draws to its conclusion.
In addition to White, there's Lionel (Williams, "Everybody Hates Chris"), the gay, black aspiring journalist who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere, and who sees White's show and its controversy as the means to make a name for himself in the school paper. There's also Coco (Parris, "Mad Men"), the black woman who doesn't want to be defined as that, with her long straight hair and colored contacts, trying her hardest to gain enough attention to land a part in a reality show that features her. Troy (Bell, "Hollywood Heights") is the non-threatening black man with a promising future, perhaps in politics, who would rather just smoke weed and write jokes than have to constantly keep up appearances of being better than everyone else.
Written and directed by first-timer Justin Simien, funded in large part due to an indiegogo campaign that stemmed from a mock trailer that went viral, Dear White People is one of the best Spike Lee-type films not directed by the man, and one might argue that it's better than most of that auteur's output in recent memory, but clearly, this is a movie that can't quite seem to come up with its own unique style sufficiently to escape from Lee's towering shadow among those who take the issue of race relations head on. When Lee made his films, one could see the seething anger that spilled out across the screen from his core, but Simien is a different sort, putting the anger upon one of his characters, Samantha, and then tempering her pro-Black militant agenda with her own feelings and interests that betray her stances. She's as confused about what's right and wrong as just about everyone else. Plus, outside of a catchy line where she addresses white folks for their ignorance, it's hard to discern what else would constitute air time on her show -- does she just make the one pithy statement and leave? Like the rest of the movie, the parameters are sketchily defined.
The economy of characters is a bit pat, and the sort of thing one rarely sees outside of a comic book adaptation. Troy's father (Haysbert, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) happens to be the Dean of Students. Troy also happens to be in some sort of relationship with Sofia (Curran, Legally Blondes), who is the daughter of school president Fletcher (Syvertsen, Best Man Down). The head of the white frat that is one side of the friction within most of the storylines is Kurt (Gallner, CBGB), who happens to be the son of president Fletcher. Coco is trying to steal some of Sam's thunder, but also gets involved with Troy at some point, despite being the new person. Thousands of students and faculty on campus, and the entire population's movers and shakers seem to be limited to just a dozen people.
Though the cast is lively, the characterizations are aimed at broad student stereotypes in order to make shorthand statements at a glance in an ensemble piece. Conversations seem to have an allegorical, non-organic feel, as if each moment is meant to be indicative of some larger meaning Simien wants to invoke upon us. Though the film is a comedy, it isn't as much of a laugh-inducer as you'd expect, primarily because these characters aren't developed much beyond their value in the hodge-podge of underlying commentary. There are erudite moments to be sure, enough for Dear White People to be a success, but taken at face value, it doesn't hold up as well as a realistic look at being an African-American in an Ivy League college. When Simien goes for more understated gags, such as the use of the music from Swan Lake, Sam's book title of "Ebony and Ivy", and an inflamed attack on Tea Party proponents in a silent film called "Re-Birth of a Nation", there's more said in those allusions than most of the things said through the characters' own mouths.
Dear White People is an admirable attempt at a modern-day satire poking a bit of fun at some of the continued racial friction in society to show that the so-called post-racial environment is still potent and deceptively shallow. We've either learned to hide it better, or we're in denial that the prevalent racist attitudes still exist. While it delivers a mixed bag, when it hits, it hits with a wallop, and if nothing else, it becomes the kind of conversation piece that there's still reason to be concerned about racial issues in America, despite a time when the U.S. President and many top entertainers are African-American.
©2014 Vince Leo