Review: Dear White People
With Dear White People, Justin Simien has created the impossible: a movie that busies up the screen, to the point that the artifice of the film is pushed to the forefront, (also these characters seem far too old, and, let’s face it, attractive, to be at university). But yet the film works so well within the artifice because Simien seems to almost be daring the audience to pick a side.
Do we side with Tessa Thomspon’s Samantha White, who croons the oft-repeated phrase of the name of the film from her radio show, but just as easily could be calling to her listeners, (hence the dual nature of the phrase “Dear White People”). Sam tries to take down the campus of the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University from within, on a platform of not caring, (her speech quietly echoes Tammy Metzler similarly impassioned “school president is useless” plea from the Alexander Payne film Election).
Is our favourite Troy, (Brandon P. Bell) ex-partner of Sam, now dating a white woman. Troy is something of the Big Man on Campus, with his looks and physique, but feels the need to hide out in the bathroom to smoke pot, and happens to be the son of the Dean of the university, (played by Dennis Haysbert). Troy is perhaps the quintessential poster boy for achievement, but is almost chided for not conforming to being “black enough”, whatever that may mean.
What about Coco Connors, (Teyonah Parris), who counters Sam’s radio show with her own series of online videos in which she addresses her followers and watches the hit count go up. Coco is unafraid to use her sexuality to get her way, and clearly relishes the fact that she shows off her body and wears a series of wigs. But she is also astute enough to hide her intellectual talents, changing her name from Coleandrea, and disguising the fact that she is from the South Side of Chicago.
Last but certainly not least, are we in the corner of Lionel Higgins, (played by Tyler James Williams, the portrayer of a young Chris Rock in Everybody Hates Chris), sporting a massive afro, and having trouble finding a place because of his rejection of all of the houses he has lived so far, (“Think of fitting in like Jazz”, the Dean clumsily advises). Lionel is perhaps the least-accepted, but also the most traditional, finding his voice by joining, of all mediums, the campus newspaper. One more thing about Lionel: he is gay, and so nonchalant about his sexuality, and so blasé about whether the other students care, that at times, it is surprising the film wasn’t titled “Dear Straight People”.
Along the way, there are some hilarious Tyler Perry jokes, an end credit sequence that is as horrific in its lack of irony, and a campus party to end all campus parties, at which each one of these characters attend and intersect, and point is almost made to let the audience condemn or cheer their action or inaction.
The film succeeds mightily in spurts, but feels too blunted by the end, almost like the lack of a clear decision, an imploration of what is not the correct choice diminishes the overall impact. But Simien is young, still not much older than his characters. Dear White People is a gritty effort, and shows promise that there is so much more to come.