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Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: Dear White People (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Brandon P. Bell, Dennis Haysbert

Justin Simien's feature debut Dear White People feels like a great satire right up until it pulls back the curtain during the closing credits and reminds you that its climactic event isn't satirical at all, but disgustingly true to life. Though structurally a bit shapeless, the film is so sharp, funny, and so willing to openly confront and explore social issues that most films would prefer not to admit exist at all, that it feels like nitpicking to focus on what the film could have done better when it does so much so extremely well. At a time when we desperately need work that doesn't just avoid feeding into the notion that we live in a "post-racial" society, but actively points out just how insidious and difficult to shake racism is when its roots are institutional, Dear White People feels like a breath of fresh air.

Dear White People is set at the fictional Winchester University, where racial tensions are about to hit an all-time high. The center of the action is Armstrong/Parker, a house on campus which is predominantly home to the campus' black students, including Sam (Tessa Thompson), a campus activist who hosts a radio show called "Dear White People" and has a self-published book called "Ebony and Ivy," which sets out how to survive at an Ivy League school while black; Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the school's Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert), who has become a glorified pawn in his father's decades long rivalry with the University's President; and Coco (Teyonah Parris), who is angling to get cast in a reality show that could launch her to stardom. Not housed in Armstrong/Parker is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an outcast whose sexual orientation makes him reticent to befriend other black students, and who is unhappily stuck at the house which is home to the students who run the campus' humor magazine Pastiche, including Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who is the son of the University's President. As the film opens, three things occur in quick succession which wind up having a domino effect across campus. The first is Sam unexpectedly winning an election which sees her usurping Troy's place as Head of House at Armstrong/Parker. The second is Sam using her new power to kick Kurt out of the Armstrong/Parker dining hall after he delivers a speech about the plight of the "educated, white man" in a society being held hostage by affirmative action (just a reminder: this is a guy who attends the University where his father is President complaining about the "unfair" advantage that affirmative action offers). The third is Lionel being recruited by a campus newspaper to do a piece about Sam.

The three events reverberate through the film, with Kurt deciding that he's at war with Sam and needs to teach her a lesson, while Sam and her clique of activists make plans for demonstrations on campus to repeal a housing bylaw which they see as an attempt to break up the campus' black community, Lionel struggles to find his place at the school, and Coco and Troy each separately try to get in good with Kurt. For Troy getting in good with Kurt is about rejecting his father's rigid plans for his future so that he can pursue what he really wants, which is to be a humor writer. For Coco, who is jealous of the attention that Sam gets from her radio show, joining forces with Kurt is about getting some necessary exposure that will set her apart from Sam and help her land the reality show gig she wants. Everything culminates with the annual Halloween party thrown by Kurt's house, which he decides will have a "blackface" theme. When word gets out the tensions that have been simmering on campus finally come to a boil, setting off what the news will refer to as a "race riot."

In telling the story Simien, who wrote in addition to directing, spends much of the film's running time exploring various perspectives regarding issues of identity. Sam, who is biracial, struggles at the intersection of the image that she wants to present and what she actually wants, personified by her official boyfriend, a black activist who shares her ideals but seems to see her more as a symbol than as a person, and the guy she's sneaking around with on the side, a white grad student who loves her but whose presence in her life she feels would undermine her position on campus. Troy struggles with living up to his father's idea of what he wants to be while trying to pursue his own path, and finds that he can't quite let go of that public image he's so carefully crafted even when he starts taking steps towards independence. Coco wants to be the word on black identity even as she takes steps to obscure the markers of her own, including changing her name to make herself more hirable to potential employers. Lionel, meanwhile, has arguably the most fraught struggle with identity, marginalized for being black and for his sexual orientation (which he declines to label, though he appears to only be romantically interested in other men) in equal measure. Everywhere he turns he faces either rejection or the cold embrace of the tokenish acceptance that is all the more racist for its "kindness" than rejection could be, as in the case of the newspaper editors who become Lionel's "friends," one of whom insists (as if it's a compliment) than Lionel barely qualifies as "black" (meaning, I guess, "scary") when she's not playing with his hair. Of all the themes that Dear White People explores, the most potent is its exploration of black identity as a spectrum of different perspectives, issues, and concerns - which, of course, sounds obvious but is rarely depicted in pop culture, which tends to prefer a homogenized, one size fits all view.

For the most part, Dear White People strikes a good balance between feeling like it's tackling important issues and being a work of entertainment, though it does have some issues. Once it establishes its sides and its stakes, it does sort of meander a little bit in the middle, cycling through a number of romantic subplots (Sam has to choose between the two men in her life; part of Troy being used as his father's pawn involves him dating the President of the University's daughter, and later on he hooks up with Coco and then tries to distance himself from her for the sake of his "image;" Lionel takes tentative steps into a relationship and then thinks better of it) and having a generally shapeless feel in its middle section as if just biding its time before the climax. However, that climax is so powerful, with Simien conveying the sick making feeling one must have when they see themselves reduced to racist caricature for the entertainment of people who already possess all of the privilege but still apparently feel a deep-seated need to humiliate everyone else, that it makes the lesser aspects of the film seem like such minor quibbles. Much of Dear White People is funny, but the ending is purely powerful and the film itself is a solid and effective statement.

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