Dear White People (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, R)

dwp sqEven if Simien never makes another good movie, he’s got at least the one under his belt, which is more than most filmmakers can say, both aspiring and veteran.

 

 

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A lot of the rhetoric about the film Dear White People and its 31-year-old newbie writer/director Justin Simien is that he’s a talent to watch. This was codified by the film’s Special Jury Prize for a Breakthrough Talent at the film’s premiere at Sundance this past January, but this sentiment has been repeated over and over by reviewers, other festivals, profiles in magazines, etc. And it isn’t that I’m not looking forward to what Simien’ll do next—I most certainly am—but I feel like people are overlooking a key detail in all of this fawning about Simien’s future: Dear White People is a great film. Even if he never makes another good movie, he’s got at least the one under his belt, which is more than most filmmakers can say, both aspiring and veteran.

Dear White People takes place on the campus of the fictional Winchester University, and mostly inside of the Armstrong Parker House, a traditionally all-black house, which is slowly becoming more integrated, to the chagrin of some of its inhabitants. The unofficial leader of this faction is Sam White (an excellent Tessa Thompson), the host of a campus radio show which shares its name with this film, and which dispenses advice to the white students of Winchester: “Dear white people: The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” 

White (the irony in the name shouldn’t really be lost on anyone) is perhaps not unlike Hooper X in Kevin Smith’s film Chasing Amy: Her militancy is mostly an affectation to fill a need, and her real character isn’t quite what she shows on the surface. For example, she’s secretly dating a white dude named Gabe (Justin Dobies). As the film begins, Sam is running for the head of Armstrong Parker against her (black) golden boy ex-boyfriend Troy (Brandon Bell), who also happens to be the son of the University’s Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert). Sam’s mostly just trying to make a point by running and does not expect to win, but when she pulls an upset—with the unasked for help of her friend Reggie (Marque Richardson)—she suddenly has to become the leader she’s been asking for in the past.

Elsewhere on campus is a sweet, quiet, gay black boy named Lionel (Everybody Hates Chriss Tyler James Williams) who doesn’t fit in with the expectations of black culture, and mostly wants to become a journalist, listen to Mumford & Sons, and be left alone. Lionel gets his chance to write for the school’s big newspaper because of his inside track to the racial tensions heating up over Armstrong Parker—tensions which are flared by the dickish, white Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of Dean Fairbanks’ boss and editor of the college’s popular humor magazine Pastiche. Finally, there’s Coco (Teyonah Parris, aka Dawn on Mad Men—and again, don’t miss the obvious symbolism in her character’s name), a black girl who’s comfortable with the trappings of being a modern black woman, and whose main aspiration is to gain the attention of a reality TV producer haunting the campus.

While the performances are great, if I had to pick one thing that really makes Dear White People work so well, it’s Simien. His screenplay is both hilarious and creepily spot-on (interestingly, especially in its dialogue for the various white characters, both the good ones and the bad ones), and his direction hits just the right balance of a movie that is fun to watch, yet leaves you with plenty to think about and discuss once the film’s over. And like the glory days of Mad Magazine, nothing is safe from his satire: White culture is criticized, black culture is criticized (yes, including Tyler Perry, who directed Thompson in For Colored Girls back in 2010), and, yes, I myself am criticized. Stabs are made at white film teachers who make their classes watch both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind (guilty), and also white people who love Do the Right Thing (that’s me, although it’s implied we’re not wrong in this).

If you’re reading this review and thinking, “I don’t want to pay $10 to see some anti-white screed,” don’t blame the movie: Blame me for not describing it clearly enough. In truth, the only people I’d expect to not like it are those who don’t see it because they think they won’t like it. | Pete Timmermann

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