I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect going into ‘Dear White People’. On one hand, I carry a certain degree of inherent pride towards it, as its director, Justin Simien, just so happens to be an alumni of my college (Chapman University). On the other, I’ve never been a big fan of movies that are primarily about social issues. Rarely do I feel as though the filmmakers are doing much else besides preaching, and there are plenty of churches and boys and girls clubs in this world for that. However, here’s the thing about preaching. If the person regaling these messages can make his audience laugh, the lessons may just go down a little smoother, and that’s exactly what this film does.
Dear White People is an ensemble piece that centers on four black students attending a highly prestigious and primarily white college. Lionel (Tyler James Williams), is a repressed, large afroed introvert living in just about the douchiest residence hall of god awful rich white kids this side of SoCal, who finds himself working for one of the school newspapers in bringing attention to a social movement happening on campus. That movement is lead by Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a half-white, half-black girl who hosts a racially charged radio show entitled ‘Dear White People’, on which she attacks the hypocrisies and injustices of the white students on campus. When she beats out Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the influential (and inhumanly in shape) son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert), for the head of house position in the primarily black residence hall, she begins to kick the ignorant white kids out of the dining hall. Meanwhile, Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a online video blogger of sorts who is trying to ride the line between white and black culture. All this culminates around a brewing ‘Black Themed’ Halloween party that the most popular frat run by Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the son of the schools president (Peter Syvertsen)
Essentially, this is ‘The Avengers’ of racially charged message movies, guided by a blunt, razor sharp satirical edge. It pulls absolutely no punches in presenting these issues, but does it through such larger than life characters, that it never feels like it’s just vomiting it’s points at it’s audience, hoping to change everyone. Quite the opposite in fact. While the white characters are definitely the antagonists for the most part, Every single character here is either deeply flawed, or hypocritical in some way, and it’s great fun watching all of these different world-views and perspectives clash. Beyond that, the film is just flat out funny, with so many fantastic lines and character moments littered throughout that very well could make your audience cheer in uncomfortable delight.
All of the performances here are very strong, Tyler James Williams most so. I never thought much of this guy on ‘Everybody Hates Chris’, but here he shows beyond a shadow of a doubt just how wrong I was. His comedic timing and delivery in this is off the charts, completely committing to Lionel’s awkward, sarcastic sense of the world. Thompson is fierce, and fiery as Sam, who I suspect is going to become somewhat of a feminist icon, and deservedly so. Her ‘take no prisoners’ mentality and sharp observations provide the brunt of the gasps here, making it exciting whenever she opens her mouth. Bell and Parris are slightly less interesting, more one dimensional characters, but they still manage to pull some solid stuff out of them. After all, how can I really complain about a character named Fairbanks?
My one major issue with this film was inevitable considering the satirical style of this film, but I wish that the white characters here had as much dimension as the black ones. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not all portrayed as evil, but for the most part, they’re just very simple. Kurt and his father are pretty much mustache (if they had them) twirling villains with no real motivation besides ignorance and stupidity in being as racist as they are, while Gabe (Justin Dobies), one of Sam’s love interests, is your standard ‘nice guy’ who only really gets one brief moment to be dynamic at all. Also, some of the filmmaking here is just a little amateurish. While it does look beautiful, there are a number of odd framing choices and camera movements. Some might call it stylized, and that’s perfectly fine, but it definitely pulled me out of the film a little.
Dear White People is one of the most successful, and important films about race relations that I’ve seen in quite some time. Biting and honest without seeming mean spirited, and vulgarly funny without pushing it to a caricaturish degree. Above all that though, it’s just flat out enjoyable, especially if you’re in a theater full of people who aren’t sure what to expect. It’ll catch you off guard, make you a little uneasy, and make you talk about it, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.