REVIEW: Dear White People

19 06 2014

Dear White PeopleLos Angeles Film Festival

Dear White People” calls itself a satire.  But quite often, the film has its finger on the pulse on such a vivid reality that it could pass for a straight drama.  The object of scorn at the center of the film is a controversial party on a fictional Ivy League campus where whites parade around as Obama, Nicki Minaj, or just a generic gangster rapper stereotype.

This hardly feels like an exaggerated universe: I’ve known two white girls who donned blackface to be Venus and Serena Williams for Halloween, and I’ve seen a ridiculously racist fraternity party invitation at my own university.  So what is intended as Juvenalian satire winds up sounding somewhat like the blistering, screaming anger of a Spike Lee joint.

A part of me wishes writer/director Justin Simien, making his feature debut with “Dear White People,” had dropped all pretenses of satire and just embraced the Lee model of didactic criticism.  He has a lot to say about the state of culture and race relations, much of it voiced through the film’s motormouthed protagonist Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson).  Plenty of it is valid, though for those currently on college campuses, most of it will sound very familiar.

If the film is intended to start a conversation, the back-and-forth will only start once Simien is done airing all his grievances.  At times, conversations in the film are just superfluous scenes for him to further show off all he has observed.  He doesn’t pick fights he can’t win, save perhaps explaining the inexplicable success of Tyler Perry movies.

When he doesn’t talk at his audience, however, and just lets the characters be, “Dear White People” is actually quite intriguing.  Simien crafts an ensemble film with several interesting black archetypes that prove to be far more complex than just characters sketches with witty lines.  Be it the wannabe reality star Coco, the non-threatening male Troy, the anarchist Samantha, or the quiet observer Lionel, there’s surprising depth in their development that highlights the complexities of identity and identification.  They’d make the backbone of a great, hard-hitting straight dramatic piece, a mood I often wished the film would have just embraced. B-2stars

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