'Dear White People' Is The Sharp Racial Comedy Hollywood Needs Right Now
Justin Simien's startling debut feature Dear White People, which bills itself as a "satire about about being a black face in a white place," shows off its sense of humor and sense of irony right off the bat by lovingly borrowing from one of the whitest filmmakers imaginable, opening with a Rushmore-like montage of classes and campus life at the fake-Ivy of Winchester University. Among these extracurricular activities is a college radio show by Sam (Tessa Thompson), who uses it as an over-the-air podium to launch edicts against racial micro-aggressions that happen to each be proceeded by the words that just so happen to be the film's title. "Dear White People: please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?"
Sam, at first, is used as the film's militant, yet elegant, primary voice—seemingly appropriate for the pointed title and touchy subject. Her radio show puts her on the radar of the dean of students (an excellent Dennis Haysbert), and creates tensions in the mostly genteel and White student body with the exception of her African-American peers, who rally behind her. Dear White People, while certainly setting up the White American perspective as the target of many of the film's punchlines, is also quick to self-examine its own black characters. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the dean of students, and CoCo (Teyonah Parris) both stand in as the opposing voices of the upwardly mobile, socially and economically. Troy is burdened by and wants to shed the political or economic aspirations of his father who hopes he can shatter the glass ceiling, while CoCo would be the closest the film has to an assimilator and the most critical black voice opposed to Sam's. The other half of the film's heart and soul, though, comes in Lionel (Tyler James Williams, a gem), a gay nerd who is only "technically" black and initially excluded from the school's black community.
It has its flaws: Troy and CoCo could stand to use a little more depth instead of just standing in as symbols, and the climax of a blackface frat party feels more like an pat plot resolution than actual shock (perhaps spoiled already by its own previews). But it's understandable given the juggling act Simien must manage with the Altman-like intertwining of narratives and characters within the span of just a feature-length film. Simien himself has expressed aspirations that he can expand the Dear White People universe into a television series.
What makes Dear White People so affecting is the way it portrays the struggle with personal identity, best illuminated in Sam and Lionel. While exact opposites in demeanor, Sam's mixed-race heritage and Lionel's sexuality both leave them without a feeling of community. Their respective lashing out and passiveness both also lend the film shades of the melancholy and tragic. For all the laughs and barbs about racial politics and tensions that the film delivers, Dear White People is one of the best and brightest films of the year because it is ultimately a sharp tragicomedy not about how we perceive others, but how we perceive ourselves.
Dear White People opens today in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. It will open wide nationally next week, October 24.