Dear Movie Goer—
There’s long been a need for a real conversation on race in this country. A conversation about our misconceptions, mis-understandings and assumptions we have regarding one another. For years there’s been things we couldn’t say for fear of offending. But the internet has provided a worldwide forum for gloves off bigotry and (name it)-ism. The conversation has been happening awkwardly and with a nasty undercurrent on social media.
First time writer director Justin Simien’s film Dear White People brings that conversation to the Cineplex, turning its lens on the audience letting characters stare into the camera with impunity and attitude. Dear White People shuffles several students at an Ivy League College in the days leading up to a black-face party thrown by a group of white students and the subsequent riot it engenders. First there’s Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a radial black student poet, filmmaker and host of her own campus radio show, titled Dear White People. Her daily broadcasts allow the filmmakers to sprinkle in one-liners like a sentient narrator the characters hear and respond to. Sam is a great heroine, an angry, articulate Black woman who stands up and speaks truth to power to anyone’s face without letting anger burn her down.
She begins the film by challenging the coddled and popular Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) in election for a new leader of the campus’s only black student dorm. Troy is caught between a throne and a soft place—dating the daughter of the very white school president and being son to the schools conservative Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert), all while trying to keep some secrets. We also meet Coco, (Teyonah Parris) a black student with blue eyes, a weave and reality TV dreams, wishing her video blog was as popular as Sam’s Dear White People posts. Then there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams) a friendless freshman and budding journalist who’s stuck sitting alone at lunch, not quite fitting in anywhere.
There’s no way to make a satire like this without it being didactic and preachy, but at least this is done with class. DWP tosses out references and jokes with the frenzied, intellectual pulse of an early Woody Allen film, even as it takes liberal samples from Spike Lee’s entire filmography. It couches its philosophy and lectures with popping dialogue between its model-worthy cast. Simien frames his actors awkwardly; cutting between off-centered close ups of two actors sitting inches from one another. This gives the feeling of people talking AT one another instead of conversing WITH one another. Its disorienting but purposeful. The characters here rarely see one another as they are. Everyone wears a social mask playing a role for others where they are never clearly, truthfully seen. Well, that is except for the White students on campus who never have to wear a mask unless its all in good ethnic fun at a frat party.
Dear White People says a lot about the roles we involuntarily get stuck playing. This being the core problem of racism. There’s who we are and there’s the role we play for others based on their projected assumptions and the expectations associated with it. Here, each character hides behind a mask that no one ever bothers to look behind. Characters see what they want to see and look no deeper.
Well, except for Lionel. Consider an early scene with him sitting on the steps in the school quad. He silently gazes across the courtyard and considers the various groupings of friends, full of people mirroring each other. They don’t appear as friends, but members of a common club. What group does Lionel reflect and belong in? Even his skin color and galactic afro doesn’t make his place any more obvious.
But does this work as a film? Do you need to see it – not under some social obligation to either appear cool or get some kind of understanding -— but just on the merits of being entertained?
The cast is packed with ridiculously gorgeous actors. The screenplay, at least in its first half, is sharp and witty. You can hear when the screenplay begins underscoring its points with all the subtly and references of a slam poem. But it remains smart and approachable with some nice narrative surprises. Some well earned, character based laughs emerge between the gasps this is likely to incite. Satire is hard to write and here it bites gently, never shoving its audience too aggressively. When the climax finally engages, what happens is neither explosive nor surprising. For all DWP’s cribbing of Do The Right Thing, this films “garbage can thru the window” doesn’t hit as hard. True tears never quite fall. This film isn’t angry with society but disappointed. DWP doesn’t want violence and doesn’t seem to blame anyone. It instead wants to initiate a conversation with a conscious audience. It’s worth seeing, not just because of its After Ivy League School Special pedigree, but for its young troupe of performers and how bravely the film turns to face us. (The film could almost be subtitled: Really??) It manages a surprise or two even as it comes to a mildly clunky finish. Go for the treatise on racism but stay for the witty screenplay and its freshman class of actors. It’s a sweet film with a lot of baggage that it carries well.