Dear White People, one of the only films you will be watching this year that directly addresses race in contemporary America, begins fairly conventionally, schooling the viewer in the all too-familiar social groups of Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League?type institution. Even its jokes kick off rather tamely—often lackluster and easy, such as in a cafeteria scene pitting a white man flippantly launching racial stereotypes against rightfully angry black students.
Yet the film, as it becomes more and more involved in the lives of four undergraduates, blossoms into a sharper, wittier, and more poignant look at race relations and identity politics. The two men and two women, each initially conforming to well-known stereotypes, become more radical in their behavior and thought, leading to an engaging series of events ripe for effective comedy.
The central protagonist is the Dear White People radio program host Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a mixed race (black and white) media student and the newly elected head of the primarily black residence. While she is given a likely opponent in the rude, self-entitled, and white Kurt (the son of the university president), her main foils are the overachieving son of the dean of students, Troy (Brandon Bell), and the attention-seeking Coco (Teyonah Parris, known for TV’s Mad Men)—two black students looking to ingratiate themselves with Kurt and his well-connected publication Pastiche.
The fourth is perhaps the most complex and well executed: Lionel, a gay aspiring journalist who fails to fit into any one specific group. He is played by the very funny Tyler James Williams, who so wonderfully portrayed the fictional adolescent Chris Rock in the television series Everybody Hates Chris. He enters the scene first as a reporter seeking to turn the apparent race wars into a good story but slowly becomes more personally invested in his surroundings, simultaneously finding his social footing.
The film focuses on the power of media to both reproduce ideological and social hierarchies and expose the hidden structures of oppression and control. (In one inspired scene, Sam puts on “white face” in her film update, A Rebirth of a Nation.) Its many pronouncements on racial inequality on campuses and society at large are clear and right, yet the film displays only the beginnings of a more nuanced conversation on how such discrimination is constructed and sustained through the fantasy of images and special effects.
Each character attempts to develop a career in one or more areas of communication, including YouTube channels, reality television, and standup. The film mixes these in clever acknowledgement of the contemporary conversation, while the result produces more detailed gags, it also contributes to the overall lack of tonal cohesion.
At one point, Sam’s white lover, Gabe (Justin Dobies), insists that her favorite director is really Ingmar Bergman, and not Spike Lee, as she pretends. Something similar could be said of first-time director Justin Simien’s oscillation between Lee’s more direct invocations of the viewer, such as when students vent their frustrations looking almost directly into the camera, and Bergman’s poetic contemplation in the more intimate, romantic scenes. Simien places tremendous weight on profile shots, a maneuver that often works to give a hint of sensuality to politically charged situations, but that is also overused, lessening its impact. The climatic sequence nearing the end gestures towards a potentially more visually radical film that is sadly never fully achieved, possibly held back by a need to please a wider audience.
Dear White People is without a doubt the work of a film aficionado with a strong vocabulary in movie history, invested in the power of the image and media as he is in the deconstruction of race dynamics and political structures. Simien promisingly demonstrates agile use of an array of cinematic tools and sharp social insight, but he has yet to forge his own more focused approach to filmmaking. The film is perhaps too viewer-friendly and broad to be truly memorable. However, one hopes that this turns out to be the beginning of a career throughout which Simien develops a more radical style, pushing further the boundaries of how we discuss race and make movies.