“Racism is over in America,” declares the snooty president of the elite (and fictional) Winchester University halfway through Dear White People. Would you believe that said president is a white character? Clearly, this is a man unqualified to run an institution that would not likely accept the above declarative sentence as an essay thesis statement. The character certainly fits the college experience as it is often depicted in film – one completely isolated from what any generic student actually goes through on campus.
Thankfully, writer/director Justin Simien (making a bold debut here) does all he can to flip a film about post-secondary life on its head. Here, the characters are mostly a range of contradictions and complexities who speak their minds with the same sharp wit and intelligence that fits the profile of any student at an elite university. Dear White People may often be more of an investigation of racial identity than a riotously entertaining comedy, but the film is best suited as a potent observation of college culture, especially since it takes the students and their identity crises seriously.
The sharp comedy of Dear White People manages to focus on an ensemble of African-American grad students without rushing the plot along or skimming on characterization. The leader of the pack is one Samantha White (Veronica Mars‘ Tessa Thompson), a campus radio DJ whose diatribe “Dear White People” becomes both a polarizing and empowering segment that raises some eyebrows. She is also a visual arts major who vocalizes her lack of sentiment with the marginalization of black characters in American cinema. (In one of the film’s funniest scenes, we see her silent, black-and-white short “Re-Birth of a Nation,” featuring actors in whiteface unsettled by Barack Obama.) Her reactionary views and loud reception on campus make one student describe her as someone who could be the baby of Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey.
In another dorm – a mostly white frathouse of boorish types who write for a campus comedy magazine – lives Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a closeted writer. He accepts an assignment from a newspaper editor he has a crush on to do a profile on Samantha. Lionel soon shows up on the radar of Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the school’s dean of students (a welcome Dennis Haysbert). Troy does not take much pride in his blackness, showing more interest in hanging out with his white girlfriend Sophie (Brittany Curran) and joining the all-white staff of the comedy magazine run by Kurt (Kyle Gallner). Another student looking for a pedigree of power is Colandrea (Teyonah Parris, from Mad Men), who imitates Sam’s off-color radio show for a vlog. She hopes to use her vocal distaste for girls touching her weave as a pathway to campus celebrity.
Many of the principal characters live in Parker/Armstrong (named after the influential African-American musical greats), a house that doubles as the epicenter of black student life. (One of the film’s subplots looks at a new school initiative to randomize student housing, which the Parker/Armstrong students see as diffusing the black collective on campus.) The dorm also serves as a showcase for a diverse group of young talent. Thompson is the standout, balancing her sharp, cynical remarks with a more vulnerable side, as she tries to focus on not turning into one of the stereotypes she blasts on the radio. Williams is also very good, with a laid-back, deadpan delivery that serves as a nice counterpoint to the inflamed tone of much of the rest of the film.
For a movie that takes pride in pushing aside black stereotypes, Simien’s Dear White People is very successful in not limiting these characters by their initial identity and desire. All of the characters above seem like they could fit within a category – Samantha could be the angry black girl, and Lionel could be the shy kid too meek to embrace his heritage, for instance. However, they become an increasingly complex collection of contradictions. On the other hand, Simien continues to invert stereotypes by framing the white characters as privileged, dim-witted and not much else. With the exception of a TA friend of Samantha’s, Gabe (Justin Dobies), the white men and women are simplistic and shallow, as culturally ignorant as the president character quoted at the top of this review.
Contrary to the belief of anyone who has watched either of the film’s trailers, Dear White People is a comedy fueled more by incisive wit than pop culture jokes, the latter of which was prominent in advertising the film. (To be fair, the scene of a mélange of black students pestering a white box office attendant is very clever.) However, the potent one-liners revolving around facets of racial identity and marginalized black culture are meant to provoke thought more than big laughs. The film is more effective as a satire than a comedy; however, on that level, Simien succeeds, especially when crafting characters that resist easy classification.
Unlike Samantha’s more militantly filmed “Re-Birth of a Nation,” Simien is not as radical or showy of a stylist. Regardless, he uses some effective techniques. He shoots many of the characters head-on, as if they were addressing the audience. (Spike Lee is clearly an inspiration.) The writer/director, who has a fruitful career ahead of him, also frames many of the black characters from a low-angle, which situates them in a place of greater power. Meanwhile, unlike the alt-rock heavy soundtracks that usually overscore films set at college, Simien relies on classical music at certain points, which fits the feel of the old-fashioned campus while also offering a wry twist on conventions.
Dear White People does not only try to undermine cinematic conventions, but also comments on how racial identity has evolved. The characters do not just attend an elite school, but speak with the vigor and verbal intelligence of those who actually would. It feels refreshingly modern. One could find the pseudo-intellectual debating a bit much, but it is also a nice change of pace (and somewhat daring) to hear students at a university discussing culture and race with an articulate voice.
Dear White People is a college comedy with cutting jokes and complex characters, showcasing an ace ensemble of young actors and a writer/director to watch.