Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Dear White People

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Here is a debut feature that is full of great ideas, a handful of strong performances, righteous anger, some pointed humor and a boldness that is not frequently present in American movies. And yet, Justin Simien's "Dear White People" is a movie that I admire more than love. For a first time filmmaker, Simien fearlessly tackles subjects that a majority of films made in the U.S. shy away from, but he also falls into some of the traps you might expect from a debut film.

There are many characters and their various stories taking place on the film's fictional campus of Ivy League-esque Winchester College, so I'll try to condense them as best as I can. The film, a satire, primarily concerns a protest by the mostly black members of a dorm hall after the school attempts to force diversification by mixing and matching students from various dorms.

Sam (Tessa Thompson), a revolutionary in training who inadvertently becomes the face of the protest, hosts a humorous campus radio talk show titled "Dear White People," during which she tells white students that she is raising the "quota of black friends" for whites from one to two people to not be racist and notes that "your weed man Tyrone doesn't count."

On another side of the dorm debate is Troy (Brandon P. Bell), Sam's ex-boyfriend, and Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), two black students who prefer to fit in with the white crowd, which is led by the obviously bigoted Kurt (Kyle Gallner). Then, there's Lionel Higgins (scene stealer Tyler James Williams), a black student who is on neither side of the debate, other than his intention to write about it and gain a spot at the school newspaper. Lionel is gay and does not feel welcome with either the school's black students or white pupils, who taunt him about his sexual orientation.

Simien's film is being mentioned in the same sentence as Spike Lee, most likely due to the fact that that filmmaker's early "School Daze" also dealt with school housing. However, while certainly daring in its content, "Dear White People" is missing some of the ingredients that made some of Lee's best films ("Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "Clockers") so potent.

For starters, many of the characters feel more like archetypes that must exist to push the film's narrative forward than fully fleshed out characters, especially Sam's secret white boyfriend as well as her other beau who helps her with her causes involving the school housing program.

And several of the picture's plot lines are unnecessary and not quite believable, especially one involving the rivalry between the school's white president and Troy's father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Also, it's a little difficult to swallow that three of the main players in the school's drama just happen to be the children of these two men.

In other words, I think Simien has obvious talent and it's refreshing to see someone make a film about race in America - and, on top of that, how we talk about race in America (the school's president states that "racism is dead in America" with no sense of irony) - in a manner that is not watered down or afraid to push a few buttons. I can admire "Dear White People" and praise many of its elements. However, I feel that a stronger movie might have been made with this material and, perhaps, next time, Simien could be the one to do it.

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