Racial identity and the more subtle nuances of prejudice in “post-racial” America get a provocative, satirical treatment in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” a film that took the 2014 Sundance Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent.
Clearly a work by a young director, the film comes at you with a torrent of sharp dialogue, multiple characters and a traffic jam of scenes and story points in what feels like a rushed 106 minutes.
Responses may scatter not only along the racial divide but also liberal/conservative demarcations although it’s hard to imagine anyone on the White Right going near a movie called “Dear White People.”
The film makes you realize how long it’s been since Spike Lee shook things up with his seminal “Do the Right Thing” along with other black filmmakers of the era, angry or otherwise, who delivered scathing critiques about race relations in America.
Simien’s point is that prejudice hasn’t disappeared in the 21st century but rather gone underground with coded messages and a subtlety that doesn’t openly parade bias. His focus here is on a group of African-American students as they navigate the minefield of campus life at a predominantly white elite university.
So things such as a recently passed “Randomization of Housing Act,” a seemingly liberal effort to break up de facto segregation in housing, has the (intended?) consequence of undermining a traditional residence hall for black students, the only place where blacks can be in the majority while on campus.
Activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) hosts a provocative radio show called “Dear White People” that skewers the state of race relations on campus with pronouncements such as “Dear White people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised … to two.”
When she unexpectedly wins election as head of the black residence hall, unseating ex-boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Branden P. Bell), son of the university’s dean (Dennis Haysbert), this sets in motion a jockeying for power among the campus’ minority community.
Troy joins the staff of “Pastiche,” a humor magazine while a gay black more into sci-fi than black culture, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), is recruited by this otherwise all-white paper to write about flash points among fellow blacks at the hall, a subject he knows little about.
The assimilated Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) launches her own online video blog with the dual purpose of taking down Sam’s “Dear White People” a notch while launching her own career in reality TV. Meanwhile Sam and Lionel are covering up relationships that could jeopardize their status as black spokespeople.
What no one at Winchester University (actually the University of Minnesota) sees coming is an ill-conceived Halloween party, overseen by the university president’s son Kurt (Kyle Gallner), with an “unleash your inner Negro” theme. A riot ensues.
(Lest any viewer think such a party is a stretch, the film concludes with news stories about several recent “blackface” parties on campuses across the country.)
While comic in tone, “Dear White People” plays much like a drama (albeit an exaggerated one) with frequent posturing in Simien’s dialogue that feels like a long op-ed piece. The film is long on talk and rather short on action.
The film means to unsettle. Virtually every situation and scene are designed within the context of race relations. No one has a conversation about a physics test or how the football team looks this year. The film has a one-track mind.
Standouts here include Thompson, whose character is caught in a dilemma as a woman of mixed race and with an “inappropriate” romantic choice, and Williams, whose character is also torn between black and gay identities.
Haysbert demonstrates the challenges of a much older generation, who fought the old civil rights battles only to get caught up in the challenges of racially inflected university politics and a long-standing conflict with its white president.
Parris, whose character tries to legitimize the raced-themed Halloween party, shows what can happen when one is caught trying earnestly to fit in with white classmates in order to get what she wants.
“Dear White People” may, like “Do the Right Thing,” when seen from the distance of three decades, be a prescient satirical drama that looks sharper and smarter with the passing of time. For now it’s a lively, thought-provoking film that probably won’t be seen by many.
For the film may make whites uncomfortable while blacks know all too well of the challenges Simen so succinctly dramatizes.
Opens: October 17, 2014 (Roadside Attractions)
Production company: Duly Noted
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Malcolm Barrett, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies, Marque Richardson, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Syversten
Director/screenwriter: Justin Simien
Producers: Effie Brown, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Ann Le, Lena Waithe
Executive Producers: Leonid Lebedev, Stephanie Allain
Director of photography: Topher Osborn
Production designer: Bruton Jones
Costume designer: Toye Adedipe
Music: Kathryn Bostic
Editor: Phillip J. Bartell
No rating, 106 minutes