‘Dear White People,’ You Cut Deep (Movie Review)
Dear White People: 4 ½ out of 5
Mitch: It’s like Oprah and Spike Lee had some sort of pissed off baby.
I don’t think there is any real way around me saying that I am of mixed-race and have certain views towards humor that delves into race. Obviously I could just not mention this at all, but that seems like more of a disservice, when it comes to a review that focuses on a film satirizing racial politics on a college campus. While my experiences do not reflect the events that take place in Dear White People, I did have a level of understanding of the circumstances and walked away both very satisfied and somewhat angered, given how the film works in its provocation. The best way to look at Dear White People though, is as an examination of identity. It leans on certain points for the sake of a particular story, but this is a film about understanding one’s self versus what the masses understand. It also happens to feature some very fine filmmaking on display for a directorial debut.
Given that this is the debut theatrical film from writer/director Justin Simien, it makes me wonder who else could have made a film like this, aside from the obvious answer: Spike Lee (from perhaps a different era). From what I have learned and can plainly see, Simien is a well-informed individual, with lots of talent that stems from his education and cinematic influences that clearly extend beyond just Lee and into territory further back, with filmmakers such as Woody Allen, Fellini, Hitchcock, and Altman (who is name-checked in this film) coming to mind. I say this because Dear White People is sure to bring up a certain understanding from people that have not seen it based on just the title, the brief commercials, and other such advertising for the film. Regardless of whether I liked it or hated it, I know that I was brought in because of what I thought it would be. It only helps that I appreciated the film for being much more than a satire with a lot of clever moments, as it is really a cinematic drama that happens to be digging into some rich material.
Really, if you put aside the notion of racial politics revolving around black culture on an Ivy League campus, Dear White People is just a great college film in the same vain as something like The Social Network or even something much much broader, like Revenge of the Nerds. Dear White People may not be as emotionally cold as David Fincher’s film or at all as broad as the raunchy 80s-era film, but it does stand to reason that this film could be looked at from a point-of-view that does not focus as much on the race angle, as much as it does at living on a college campus for a short while. Essentially, why I am happy to mention such comparisons is due to how the film feels so sneaky in what it tries to do. Simien has made a feature with a surface layer of satire that does know how to dive into a deeper understanding of the topic it presents and does so, but at the end of the day, still relies on a formula fitting for a film about a group of college students. This again makes a good case as for why he has proven to be more than just someone bringing up certain topics in his debut feature, because he is also doing fine work as a filmmaker working in the bounds of his visual medium, as opposed to putting together an assemblage of ideas, without much form.
Keeping all of that in mind, Dear White People focuses on a number of key characters. Tessa Thompson is Samantha White, a mixed-race radical, looking to stir things up regarding the racial politics on campus. We begin the film with her, as we listen to her radio broadcast talking down to white culture in humorous fashion. What turns Samantha into more than just an idea of a character and into an actual character is what we learn about her and what Thompson brings to the role. Understanding her issues is one thing, but realizing the emotional distress she has gone through makes Samantha far more understandable, with Thompson doing fine work in bringing out the layers of this character. There is also Tyler James Williams as Lionel Higgins, a shy, gay, black student, who has had trouble in connecting to anyone, which includes other black students. Samantha may be the lead character, but Lionel is closer to being the character we are truly following throughout the film. He somewhat fills in as the unlikely hero character, but he is more of a character that fits in the middle of all the drama that unfolds in this film.
Other characters play big roles in this film as well, including Teyonah Parris as Coco, a smart girl unfortunately more focused on becoming famous than anything else; Brandon P Bell as Troy, a leader in training, under control of his father, the dean of students, played by Dennis Haysbert. There is also Justin Dobies as Gabe, a white TA, with points to counter Samantha’s arguments, despite the mutual affection the two have for one another. The scenes these two characters have together represent the ways in which Dear White People actually does do a fine job of balancing the satirical elements with fine human drama, which is much appreciated. I do not want to keep going back to Spike Lee, but just consider how much more effective Do The Right Thing is because of the down time we spend with Mookie or the characters played by Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, or even Rosie Perez, before jumping back into the heated topics that drive the plot. Dear White People similar provides this level of entertainment, which overall helps the film.
The core of this story involves an event put on by some of the white students on campus. This event has a theme that enrages the black students, leading to news-worthy coverage of the aftermath. The film takes place a few weeks before these events, allowing us to build up to what takes place. The characters I have mentioned already are at the center of this, along with Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the spoiled son of the college President. Gallner’s performance would be over-the-top if he was not based on people who very much exist, as evidenced by a montage of photos in the end credits, displaying similarly themed events to the one featured in this film. With that said, Gallner does make a strong impression, which serves the film very well. It is not so much about how awful this character is compared to other though, as Dear White People is more of an examination of college life, as I previously stated. Obviously this film uses satire as a means to depict how we see things in this film, but whether or not this film is about redeeming any of its characters, it does really boil down to finding identity during a complicated time in one’s life.
There is plenty more to discuss about this film, which is part of why I am very pleased Dear White People has been made and has received attention. As it stands though, Justin Simien gets a lot of credit from me for making a film that does tackle interesting ideas and makes attempts to hit targets that sit within our current Obama era, while also making a film that holds together as a fine piece of filmmaking. While it does fit under the guise of a comedy, I would not even say the humor is Dear White People’s strong suit, as the film’s pacing is far more fitting of a drama, matched with some punchlines to add some levity to what we are watching. Keeping that in mind, in an age where standard comedies end up looking fairly plain, Simien puts a stamp on this film that allows for appreciation of the style on display. There is a very good-looking film here. It is a film that has a topic on its mind and uses sharp writing and wit to provoke a response, but is still a well-made film. Putting all complications aside, I said that I am of mixed-race when I started and while this film got a certain response out of me in my reaction to its ideas, I am very fine with examining it, while also recommending it for trying to mean something and doing its best to be a bold effort.
Reggie: Did somebody say mulatto?