Written and directed by Justin Simien, “Dear White People” pulls off a surprising number of things with startling ability. It’s an American film that talks about race with strong feeling, common sense and good humor; it’s an indie screenwriting-directing debut as polished as it is provocative; it’s a satire that also lets its characters be people; it’s a showcase of clever craft and direction as well as whip-smart comedic writing brought to life by a dedicated, charismatic cast that also conveys real ideas and emotion. It’s precisely the kind of first film you want to see at Sundance—brash, bold, beautiful and where the few minor flaws can’t overwhelm your appreciation of this film or stop your enthusiasm for the prospect of the next one. Justin Simien used to work publicity at Paramount (full disclosure: I knew him, professionally, way back when), but he clearly actually loves movies as well; based on the strength and wit of “Dear White People,” it’s not hard to envision a point in the near future where he’s working for Paramount or any other major as a director.
At the (fictional) Ivy League Westchester College, the traditional concerns of students are all in the mix—classes, campus politics, the search for happiness, the quest for a better world. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a firebrand and a provocateur—a film student who makes whiteface riffs on “Birth of a Nation,” the host of a campus radio show that shares a title with the film where she dispenses lofty advice, judgments and warnings to the campus’s white students about issues like Instagram, saying the N-word, and not just reaching out and touching your black friend’s hair. Sam’s nemesis is Troy Fletcher (Brandon P. Bell), the big-man-on-campus son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert) and her ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is looking for a place of peace on campus—but as a black, gay nerd, he’s really a man without a sub-culture. The beautiful, blue-eyed Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) figures she can earn some YouTube notoriety by using her vlog to take on Sam’s more strident vision of black culture and progress, while Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the head of the campus humor magazine and son of the University’s president, just wants to stir things up, never realizing that some stirred pots boil over disastrously …
From the start, Simien is referencing and refreshing familiar visions of conflict on campus, ranging from Spike Lee’s “School Daze” to John Singleton’s “Higher Learning,” with a few stabs at the Cosby-kind vision of “A Different World.” It’s worth noting that Westchester is a made-up Ivy—so it’s already a place of privilege, omnipresent and unquestioned by the characters or, for that matter, the script. And while parts of the film seem retro (does any human alive listen to campus radio in the Internet age?), it’s also worth saying that, in its way, racism is like hemlines; the length, angle and width of it may change, but it’s variations on a theme, not a binary on-off, and looking at past trends is a good indicator of future ones. And a few moments are cliché—like when a long argument turns into a passionate clinch the second when it gets behind closed doors—and others wear their influences deftly, like an Altman-esque zoom during a walk-and-talk between Troy and his new white girlfriend Sophie (Brittany Curran), the daughter of the University’s president.
The best thing about “Dear White People” is how it allows all of its characters to be flawed, real, human kids even as they knock out perfectly-timed jokes or enact brief imaginary interactions. It’s also worth noting that Sam herself has to figure out the difference between her positions and mere poses, a task also faced by all the other characters. At one point, Sam explains that while black people can be prejudiced, they can’t be racist, as ‘racism’ is defined by control of the power structure; while Sam’s busy parsing her sentences, she never quite realizes that being merely prejudiced is hardly something to be proud of. There’s a little drag and droop in “Dear White People,” and a tighter edit might have done the film some favors—and at the same time, there’s more talk about race, class, culture, representation and power in “Dear White People” than we’ve seen in one single film this strong in a long time. The performers are all great—a scene where Williams and Bell talk about a shared, unexpected, cultural love is funny, quick and still illuminates their characters—and Simien has a great technical crew.
The film’s culminating incident is a massively insensitive “Hip Hop Party,” fraught with Obama masks and Nicki Minaj pink wigs, blackface makeup and waved fake gangsta guns; in case anyone thinks the party’s over-the-top, the end credits provide news stories and snapshots from other, real campus ‘parties’ that work as public demonstrations of crass cluelessness. And Malcolm Barret’s Helmut, a reality-TV producer looking for ‘conflict,’ nicely proves that whether black or white, the green shade of cash still unites, and divides, all humans through the simple power of greed. “Dear White People” has both ambition and execution, with its satire sharpened, not dulled, by the characters and real emotions inside it. As brave and bold a debut film as you can ask for, “Dear White People” may be imperfect, but it’s a safe bet that one day we’ll see it not as a first film but instead as the first film in the career of a writer-director with things to say and the talent, humor and humanity to say them. [B]