Dear White People is the name of Justin Simien’s first feature film. Without any hyperbole, this might be one of the best debuts in filmmaking: knowing but not snarky, self-aware but not solipsistic, open to influence and confident in its own originality. It’s a clever campus comedy that juggles a handful of hot potatoes — race, sex, privilege, power — with elegant agility and only an occasional fumble. You want to see this movie, and you will want to talk about it afterward, even if the conversation feels a little awkward. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.
The movie is set at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League campus whose upper-middle-class students glide through a preppy world of money and power. At Winchester, the black and white kids hang out together, provoking and razzing each other, and they fall into bed without anyone making a big deal of it. The white students, who have absorbed decades of black pop culture – hip-hop, Coming to America, the edgier-than-thou slang – connect with the black students in verbally precocious ways that may seem a little self-satisfied, but that convey a great deal more understanding than their counterparts possessed a generation ago. Yet the result of all this enlightened black/white exchange isn’t harmony. It’s a racial roller-coaster in which the conflicts, rivalries and cultural differences are now elevated to a form of power politics.
Dear White People gets incredible mileage out of the personality of Tessa Thompson’s mixed campus radical Samantha White and that of her co-star, Tyler James Williams. Williams isn’t the leading man, but he quietly leads the film. As Afro-wearing, gay Lionel, he plays a character we never see in movies, a shy, offbeat young male minority whose awkward social navigation invites as much sympathy and identification as laughs. In the film, he simply stands for any black kid who finds himself adrift in a sea of cliques and types that reserve one predetermined slot for his kind. In a sweet little reverie, he imagines himself fitting in smoothly with the caucasian kids and then with the Afrocentric crowd, his hairstyle and clothing changing to suit each reality. Yet neither are his reality.
There are no easy heroes or foils in this briskly cross-cutting ensemble piece, only blossoming adults and beleagured elders (including Dennis Haysbert, cast to type as a no-nonsense Dean of Students) responding to a university economic crisis by standing their ground and sharpening their knives. Austerity breeds contempt. Two big events bookend the power plays and betrayals in between: A student government election complicated by House Negro/Field Negro politics of a distant era; and a racist theme party hosted by the movie’s fictional equivalent of the Harvard Lampoon. Along the margins, a reality TV producer pulls some marionette strings. This is Obama-era satire, but, in his visual storytelling, Simien is not joking. He’s not content to work from the stale but persistent improv-mockumentary template that’s been the state of the art for a decade–where the handheld camera flops around with a lack of conviction and worldview to match a gang of (often Ivy educated) comedy writers just bobbing for laughs.
Thompson’s fellow costars – Teyonah Parris and Brandon P Bell – likewise brings the right mix of vulnerability, personality, and uncertainty to their own respective characters. Meanwhile, in the supporting role arena, Dennis Haysbert doesn’t have to stretch his acting muscles much, but nonetheless brings the needed authority and presence to Manchester’s seasoned dean. Similarly, such people as Kyle Gallner, Brittany Curran, Brandon Alter, and newcomer Justin Dobies are given enough room to portray white characters that feel authentic – and span the spectrum in terms of attitudes toward the status quo of race and cultural identity.
At the end of the day, Dear White People does what Spike Lee’s early work managed to do: use cinema in a unique and captivating way to explore issues related to race and identity, without the resulting movie coming off as a glorified diatribe. Because the film has such a distinctly personal and “indie” feel, it just won’t be for everyone; however, those who do decide to give Dear White People a look should find the experience to be quite worthwhile and rewarding.