Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.
Running time: 108 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
Writer-director Justin Simien takes a sledgehammer to the rosy notion that we’ve achieved a post-racial utopia — but he does it with great wit, bite and flair — in his debut feature, “Dear White People.”
Simien’s film is very much of our time and place in history, and it very much toys with the idea that everything would be OK in our nation following the election of its first black president — that the racial tensions that have existed and evolved for centuries would suddenly disappear. And by “toys,” I mean it in the sense of what a cat does with a ball: He chases after it and pounces on it ferociously and relentlessly, but with highly amusing enthusiasm.
It’s actually kind of astonishing that this is Simien’s first film — that he’d try to tackle such tricky territory so sharply and with such honesty right out of the gate. He dares to say what so many of us think — dares to approach subtleties and intricacies that so many of us don’t want to bother talking about. He does it with dialogue that’s direct and often brutal but an aesthetic that’s pleasingly formal and artfully arch. It’s an obvious comparison, but “Dear White People” reminded me of some of Spike Lee’s earliest work, specifically “School Daze,” given its college campus setting. And I was thrilled to be part of the Gotham Awards committee that chose Simien as one of the five nominees for the breakthrough director award this year. He is indeed an exciting new talent.
Simien’s film follows the lives of four students on the fictional campus of Winchester University, an Ivy League-type institution. The young woman who gives the film its title — and also serves as its breakout star — is Tessa Thompson as DJ and aspiring filmmaker Sam. With her radio show, she reveals uncomfortable truths about the ways in which blacks and whites interact. Example: “Dear White People: The minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” Her observations are both smart and seductive and obviously the reflections of a woman who’s confident in her own identity and power.
Or is she? Part of what makes “Dear White People” feel so alive and vital is the way in which all the characters assess and reassess themselves and their purpose in society — without, perhaps, finding all the satisfying answers they seek. Sam, for instance, believes she should fall in with a group of militant black students, but her heart leads her to her film class teaching assistant — who happens to be white.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Coco (Teyonah Parris) — who has shortened her name from the more ethnic-sounding Colandrea — a sexy young woman who will say and do whatever provocative thing she must to garner attention and land a spot on reality television. With her straightened hair, blonde wigs and curve-hugging dresses, she’s an opportunistic climber who views Sam as a “Lisa Bonet wannabe.” Much of Simien’s humor comes from such observant put-downs of pop-culture figures; Tyler Perry, and his films that depict a narrow view of black America, get a particularly inspired skewering.
The preppy and polished Troy (Brandon P. Bell) obviously is destined for a future in politics himself, speaking of President Obama. He just so happens to be the son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert). And he also happens to be dating a white girl named Sofia (Brittany Curran), for whom this romantic dalliance is an exotic form of rebellion against her wealthy and powerful father, the school’s president (Peter Syvertsen). (The fact that Troy and Sofia’s fathers went to this university together and continue to have a competitive relationship with each other all these decades later feels more than a bit contrived.)
Finally, there’s Lionel (“Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams), who fits even less tidily into a predetermined box. Lionel is bright but nerdy. He’s an aspiring journalist but he’s extremely shy. He’s a skinny kid who rocks a massive Afro. He’s also gay. This combination of attributes makes him the target of unwanted desire and scorn from various corners, and while he seems to be having the hardest time fitting in on campus, he’s also the most secure in who he truly is.
All of their story lines collide at an ethnically-themed party that’s wildly inappropriate — the kind that we still see all the time at college campuses across the country. Simien is onto something in holding up the tendency that blacks and whites sometimes have to appropriate (and misappropriate) each others’ cultures, and the recognition of the truths he reveals is both deeply amusing and cringe-inducing. His film may meander a bit here and there but when he takes aim, he hits his targets squarely. I can’t wait to see where he’ll set his sights next.