Film titles do not get much more provocative than Dear White People, writer/director Justin Simien’s feature film debut. In a modern culture wherein affluent white males have been known to claim that racism is a thing of the past, in a culture featuring men like Bill O’Reilly will assume white privilege does not exist, the true plight and identity of black culture can get lost in the shuffle. It is so often co-opted by those in charge or marginalized into an unending string of Tyler Perry movies that probably do more harm than good. With this to consider, Simien has set out to provide his own look at black culture in the present day, one altogether more youthful and energetic than the fare to which audiences have grown accustomed.
Set on the affluent, predominantly caucasian and altogether fictional ivy league campus of WInchester University, Dear White People takes a look at the weeks leading up to a Halloween party that sparked a “race riot” of sorts and thrust Winchester’s race relations into the national news cycle. The cast of characters is many and varied, Altman-esque in its own way. There’s Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), the closest proxy to a lead, who hosts the radio show from which the film derives its title, and Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the popular head of house of the predominantly black residence on the campus. Troy is the son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert), and is dating the white daughter of the school President, whose son Kurt (Kyle Gallner) is one of those sorts of people who think the black population is no longer oppressed because Affirmative Action exists. There is also Colandrea (Teyonah Parris), nee Coco, a Youtube blogger with aspirations of reality TV and the stardom it could entail, despite living a relatively quiet and normal life. In the middle of it all is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a quiet homosexual journalist looking to turn the building racial tension on campus into an opportunity to get on the staff of Winchester’s prestigious student newspaper.
It is a lot of plot to consider, and Dear White People has a lot of characters to follow. But, in the grand spirit of Altman, Simien juggles his cast with aplomb, rarely resorting to shortcuts and creating well rounded, 3-dimensional characters with which to play. At first blush, they fit into neat boxes of established archetypes, but these archetypes are only surface, and each character has much more going on when away from prying eyes. That is the crux of the film, the pressures created by society, the predetermined roles complex human beings are expected to inhabit, and how those expectations can be especially skewed for the black population regardless of background, interests or education. Dear White People is full of sophisticated characterization like this, and Simien’s refusal to stop at the stereotype is disarming and exciting to watch.
The film has some lofty goals, representing a referendum on black culture from a vibrant young filmmaker. The plot structure and interstitial radio broadcasts certainly call to mind Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing, though the setting is a noticeably different beast. The Ivy League makes for a compelling home base, mixing the progressive leanings of a youth-oriented northeastern college campus with the nepotism, tradition and old (read: white) money of good old Harvard boys. Divorcing the setting from the inner city in which so many of these films take place allows Simiens to attack the question of race from an intellectual side (racism is everywhere regardless of what one might think) while still asking the tough questions that need to be asked to get to the root of what these students must endure.
In order to pull this off, Simiens needs a cast of depth and quality, and has assembled quite the powerful mix of relative newcomers to populate the streets and arches of his made up school. The actors are bold and vibrant, a strong mix of humor and pathos with nary a weak link to be found. Their characterizations have the nuance that is necessary to balance such a delicate and tense topic. Especially noticeable are Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams; Williams is making himself out to be a king of the reaction shot, always finding the perfect bemused expression as he lingers ignored in the back of rooms. Thompson sells her inner turmoil with conviction. This is a cast full of exuberance and promise, and they get to the spirit of Simien’s vision for Dear White People without sliding into the maudlin or the overly combative. The tone is measured, evenly keeled and appropriate.
There are times when Simien loses his way, though only slightly. The character of Kurt is a bit too much of a caricature to be completely effective as a villain; he is a black hat, and Kyle Gallner does a good job of making him thoroughly reprehensible, but his hatred feels too cartoonish compared to the rest of the cast. It is a shame Simien chose not to beef up his character a bit, relying instead on the affluent white racist trope. Kurt is there for a reason, but considering Simien’s central mission, the film would have been better served with a stronger villain. When all is added up, it is a minor quibble. Dear White People is a vibrant comedy that is not afraid to challenge its audience’s convictions and conventions.