Photo credit: Roadside Attractions Films
Dear White People
Three out of Five stars
Wit is important when discussing a subject as problematic as race. To his credit, director Justin Simien has that and then some in his feature-length debut Dear White People. In fact, it may be what will ultimately set him apart from his obvious and prickly predecessor, Spike Lee. Many will see Dear White People as an ambitious modern cross between John Singleton’s Higher Learning and Spike Lee’s School Daze. For the Generation Y audience it represents, this movie could be easily become a cult classic.
Dear White People revolves around Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) a politically active student attending Winchester University, a fictional Ivy-League university. White is a film student who makes her thoughts known about her philosophical leanings on a campus radio show entitled “Dear White People.” When White takes over as the president of the minority-dominated hall on campus, intra-racial and interracial politics concerning sex, love, friendship and loyalty flare up at every turn.
Dear White People won the coveted top prize this year at the Sundance Film Festival, so high expectations from art house crowds hover over this. When that happens, there tends to be tension between audiences. Imagine Kenny J, smooth jazz-loving folks and traditional jazz enthusiasts listening to a complicated piece by jazz icon John Coltrane. Who ultimately decides the value of the art in question?
The everyday people (especially those not of the Generation Y demographic) may feel pressured to get, understand and feel vindicated by every twist and turn of Dear White People’s dialogue-heavy storyline. How could black folks not extol a movie that explores issues of race? Dear White People does that, just at an uneven pace. Witty dialogue erupts like machine gun fire and then lingering scenes force you to try to weave the underlying message through the different conflicts and characters until the next burst of witticisms and curt putdowns come to confirm or deny the assumed message.
Any commentary concerning race in this supposed post-racial Obama era is sure to be complicated. Still, the colliding perspectives, political jousting and characters here can be dizzying. Justin Simien is undoubtedly talented, so much so that Dear White People’s first film-frantic energy of trying to get absolutely every instance that could possibly concern modern day racism included should be forgiven. In a film or two, Simien could easily be a welcomed, polished nexus between audiences who read Michael Eric Dyson and those who read Zane. The film’s depth is worthy of the buzz it generates on blogs and should be studied in film classes, flaws and all. It is a film to experience for a taste of the future of clever, socially-conscious black filmmaking. The energy of its characters, self-absorbed intelligentsia-to-be, abounds with that need to impress everyone around them with industrial strength cynicism, complexity and hastily-acquired, newly-learned philosophies. That’s fine. It’s another story when the movie itself feels like a character trying to outdo them at it.