Justin Simien’s debut feature, a crowdfunding success story and Sundance award winner, hits our screens today. Reviewed by Indy Datta.
The plot of Dear White People centres on four black students at a fictional Ivy league college. Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is a film student, activist, and host of the provocative campus radio show that shares its title with the film (sample aperçu: “Dear white people – the minmum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”). Her ex-boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), son of the dean (Dennis Haysbert) has been groomed for greatness in politics his entire life, but is more interested in joining the staff of the college’s satirical rag Pastiche (a fratty spin on the Harvard Lampoon). Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris – Dawn off of Mad Men!), is trying to wrangle her way on to a reality TV show called “Black Face/White Place”. And Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams – the star of Everybody Hates Chris), the gay black geek who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the campus cliques, is reporting undercover for the college’s serious paper on the controversy that erupts when Samantha beats Troy in an election to be head of house at a traditionally black hall of residence, and Pastiche’s annual fancy dress party looks all set to go ahead under the theme, “unleash your inner negro”.
Simien’s film has obvious predecessors in Spike Lee’s campus satire School Daze (not to mention many echoes of Do the Right Thing), and John Singleton’s more earnest Higher Learning, but his highly stylised film also homages the work of other film makers, from Bergman to Altman to Kubrick (maybe without ever hitting on an aesthetic voice of its own, although I would note that its narrative and formal engagement with peer-to-peer discourse in a multimedia world is authentic and fresh). That slight fuzziness of identity (ironically, in a film ostensibly about identity) also extends to the film’s approach to its themes.
It’s possible to look at Dear White People as primarily a film about racism in America – and to see its innovation in engaging with the fact that racism is present at every level of society, no matter how elevated, or how theoretically open to black people. Simien’s obvious intelligence and good faith means that his film’s engagement with such a hot button issue is nuanced and careful, but the rage that powers Do the Right Thing, and makes it enduringly vital, is suppressed – this is a film about race for the endlessly self-scrutinised era of Twitter and Obama, its very scrupulousness in danger of being a species of acting right around white folks.
In fact Simien has said that his film is primarily about the battle within his characters to reconcile their social identities with their true selves: for example, Samantha, the firebrand black activist, is mixed race, and has a secret white boyfriend, from whom she tries to hide the fact that she loves Taylor Swift. But the film’s drama is both spread too thin over a gamut of characters and subplots sufficient for a whole season of TV episodes, and not as sharp as its rhetoric. Character arcs are off the shelf and, ultimately – because the film barely addresses class at all – there are no stakes for most of these characters beyond, what kind of member of the nation’s elite will each one of them be.
Dear White People opens and closes with versions of Samantha’s film class project – a film that grapples with some of the same themes as the film that contains it. The final version, which incorporates the life lessons Samantha has learned over the course of the film, is warmly applauded by her classmates. A high risk strategy, this, to end a film which has always asked us to question its characters’ motives by asking us finally to take them at their own estimation.