College comedy questions a post-racial America in ‘Dear White People’
It’s a very good thing Justin Simien’s Dear White People was made—it gets in there where the dirt is. It’s been compared to Do the Right Thing, even though Simien doesn’t have much of the visual flamboyance and heat that characterizes Spike Lee. Dear White People seems closer to Animal House—not just because the real-life story that spurred this film took place at Dartmouth, home of the real Animal House, but also because of the stodgy way the administration opposes the rebel students in this film. (Has there ever been a school administration outside of a Bible college so up in arms about student radio broadcasts?) Like Terry Zwigoff in Art School Confidential, Simien uses classical music hits on the soundtrack, which lends what we’re seeing a high tone and irony. Play Mozart and everything looks like a slice of cake.
Tessa Thompson is Samantha, a film studies firebrand at lily-white Whitman College. She’s appointed herself as the corrector of the campus’ racial attitudes, in multimedia form—as a short film maker and a pamphleteer. She also broadcasts instruction to the white students who still deny they have a problem with black people. Meanwhile, we also meet the furtive Lionel (Tyler James Williams, excellent) a wary student with a sky-high Afro. He’s been writing for the school’s underground newspaper. He’s seduced to the Light Side, as it were, when some white students try to get him to write an exposé on racism for the mainstream student newspaper.
The pretty, flippant Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a vlogger (neologism shudder) who seeks Samantha’s popularity at all costs, even if it means taking an opposite approach: acting girly, self-deprecating and YouTube friendly. A TV producer is roaming the campus looking for source material for a show about being black in college. Coco may be what he’s looking for: her approach to matters of race is far more “camera ready” than what Samantha is telling the world. Samantha inadvertently gets into a student election with Troy (Brandon P. Bell) the breezy, affluent son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Surprisingly, she wins, and this encourages further John Vernon-style grumbling among the administration. And the division between the black and white students leads to a violent confrontation.
You can be in favor of Dear White People, and still notice that it’s a Harvard movie about Harvard problems. Because of the tight budget, Whitman is shot to look like an Everycollege. After about a half-hour, too many anxieties start to stack up, anxieties hardly universal to the college experiences: worries about getting tapped for the humor magazine, the aggravation of lazy, supercilious legacy students, and the problem of being placed in the correct dining house.
The Twitterish notes in Samantha’s broadcasts sometimes offer little distinction between serious racism and etiquette breaches. Simien’s characters are all flawed, troubled, and almost all duplicitous. The Latin motto of Whitman is “Know Thyself,” and nobody does here.
That’s a sign of mature filmmaking. At first we see Samantha as an avenger—she’s shot at a low angle, masked by the framing like the mysterious radio DJ in Vanishing Point. But when Samantha tells her audience “Dear White People: don’t dance” the line is supposed to be funny. It exemplifies this film’s tendency to double-dip: to decry prejudice while celebrating exceptionalism. If the Dear White People took all of her tips, they’d be frozen in Caucasian rigor. The mitigating factor is that Samantha’s self-righteousness is revealed as self-doubt. At first she seems like Simien’s sock-puppet. Eventually, Samantha evolves into a character as messed up by the corrosive yet sticky qualities of racial politics as anyone else.
Dear White People is a strong critique of pulp-TV trashiness, and the banal ho-and-pimp masquerade the white kids love. It wisely ridicules the assertion that America is post-racial after Obama’s twin victories. The film’s bravery and open ending are both credible, despite the frequent, televisionistic dead spots, and that woeful self-seriousness that always poxes student wit. You can hit the nail on the head a hundred times and still have a rickety structure.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE With Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner and Teyonah Parris. Directed by Justin Simien. Rated R. 100 minutes.