Angry lecture disguised as comedy? Well-aimed social satire? Or both? You decide!6/10
'Dear White People' is first time writer/director Justin Simien's clever and provocative take on how young black students cope with the issue of assimilation on the majority white (fictional) Winchester University campus. The title refers to a radio show hosted by Sam White (played by the excellent Tessa Thompson), a militant student, who delights in slinging bon mots at the collective white student body.
She comes up with witticisms such as "Dear White people: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two." And then tops it off with, "Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count." Other sharp-tongued epithets include: "Dear White People, dating a black person just to p-ss off your parents is itself a form of racism," and "even if Obama cured cancer, white people would still be enraged with him. And he's only half black."
Sam and her Black Student Union supporters are not always averse to being critical of black cultural icons such as Tyler Perry: "Can we have movies with, you know, characters in them instead of stereotypes wrapped in Christian dogma?" And Sam isn't always who she appears to be: although a self-proclaimed bebop aficionado, someone outs Sam for having Taylor Swift on a hidden playlist in her computershe blurts out: "And I was so careful." What's more, her white boyfriend, an RA in the dorm, is kept hidden from her BSU pals.
Simien is less successful with some of the other characters as they're not fleshed out as well. Sam's rival Troy and his Dad, Dean Fairbanks, have a pretty traditional father-son conflict, over the son's plans for the future. Then there's Colandrea 'Coco' Conners (the anti-Sam) who's changed her name to 'Coco' because Colandrea sounds too "Ghetto." She's trying to up her profile with a producer who's looking for actors in a potentially new reality show he's created; and showing up at a 'African- American themed' party (put on by the obnoxious University President's son, Kurt) is all part of her plan for upward social mobility. Insensitivity seems to run in the family, since Kurt's father, President Fletcher, declares that racism no longer exists in America, except maybe against Mexicans! But these one-liners are not enough to create, dynamic, multi-dimensional characters.
Finally, there's the ultimate outsider, the black and gay Lionel who angles his way in at the student satirical newspaper, Pastiche, in order to cover black student life on campus. Lionel doesn't fit in with the Black Student Union (they're not crazy about his homosexuality) and the white kids run their fingers through his Afro as if he's a child (one female student tells Lionel that he's black but only "technically").
The main plots in the film involve the University's desire to desegregate the traditional black residence hall which Sam is determined to prevent. Through some kind of computer chicanery, Sam is elected president of the residence hall, defeating Troy.
The climax occurs when Lionel flips out at the 'black-themed' party thrown by a gaggle of insensitive white students dressed up in black face. After trashing the room, including expensive audio equipment, Lionel and others are brought before an administrative hearing. Sam is tongue-lashed by the University President but the Residence Hall remains all-Black. Sam seems to have misgivings at getting too political and it appears she'll be moving off-campus next semester.
I'm not sure if Mr. Simien is more interested in proffering an angry lecture about race relations disguised as comedy or truly delivering a well-aimed social satire. Maybe he's achieved both. See Tessa Thompson for her performance aloneshe steals the show. White people may feel uncomfortable with many of her characters' diatribes but considering that black people have been the subject of humiliating put-downs from whites, since the time of slavery, it's understandable that that a reaction formation would be in order: to maintain self-esteem and the upper hand in conversation, a vocabulary designed to facilitate a 'comeuppance' toward whites, appears predictable amongst many black people. On the other hand, assigning collective responsibility (particularly due to the "sins of the fathers"), is a strategy that might be self-satisfying but self-destructive at the same time.
Mr. Simien has written a clever script with many great lines. Nonetheless, in the future, he needs to pay more attention to developing his characters a bit more, along with upping the stakes, when it comes to the plot.