Racial Satire ‘Dear White People’ is Heated, Hilarious

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CHICAGO – A new voice has everyone’s attention with the shaking-head comedy “Dear White People,” a necessary “Wake UP!” to a melting pot nation that still needs to get itself together, even if a black president is in the White House. Razor-sharp satire is the weapon that debut writer/director Justin Simien aims at a society that still exhibits behavior both unconsciously and consciously, both embarrassing (fascination with black hair) and grotesque (the party life’s appropriation of blackface). Equally heated and hilarious, “Dear White People” shares with a wide audience necessary criticism in the never-ending discussion about race.

The microcosm of “Dear White People” is an Ivy League school, where four black students are confronted with situations of self vs. identity. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an outspoken student who challenges her fellow students through her schoolwork (a short film titled “Rebirth of a Nation”) and radio show of which Simien’s film gets its own title from. She is elected as head of her strictly black dorm, where she champions the idea of non-diversified housing, whilst hiding her own sexual relationship with a white peer (Justin Dobies).

Leaving the head-of-house position is Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the university’s Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert). In a way to diver the path wished for by his father, Troy auditions for work at the prestigious Pastiche humor magazine, an operation run by open racist & white guy Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner). Troy shares the same ideals as Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) a meek geek with a giant afro assigned by the college’s main newspaper to get the inside scoop on Sam’s agenda. Opposing the cause of Sam and her radio show is Coco (Teyonah Parris), a young woman conflicted about her place in a society that has become, in her words, “so addicted to being black.”

Dear White People
“Dear White People”
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

Coming from a background of directing web shorts (his similarly interactive 2009-2010 series “INST MSGS” is definitely worth a Google search), Simien tackles his first feature with the similar approach of inspired ideas, but not substantial characters. The film’s well-performed quartet aren’t mouthpieces, but they are conceived as embodied perspectives before being characters that can carry narrative weight. Simien has firework ideas that make many parts of “Dear White People” explode, but not a sustaining impression that ties the total experience together beyond the memorability of various interactions.

“Dear White People” expresses itself most fluidly with its practical style, another example of Simien’s exciting sharpness. With instrumental directing that features center-framing, negative space, specific character blocking and counterpoint classical music straight out of Kubrick, Simien elevates “Dear White People” beyond its regular campus grounds to imbue its characters and setting with dynamism. Mixing these elements with fast edits surely born from the era of digital shorts, “Dear White People” emulates classic and modern in the same experience.

Dear White People
“Dear White People”
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

The humor of “Dear White People” makes for a fourth-wall-collapsing event, one that resonates with its biting deconstruction of cultural zeitgeists that range from fat suit mammies in entertainment to stereotypes regarding tipping at restaurants. One of its most concise sequences has only changed in dialogue from the initial concept trailer that got Simien the budget to this feature: a movie theater scene with students interacting with a ticket vendor, but their glares and furrowed brows are pointed at us, the filmgoers. These offended students fire concise critiques of Tyler Perry (“stereotypes wrapped in Christian dogma”) or murderous black history films. In Simien’s tactful embrace of satire to convey a message over drama, the scene is capped with a comical hopelessness, as the vendor informs them that at least they’re showing a film starring rapper 2 Chainz. The crowd reacts in hands-raised outrage, but the beat is sufficiently comical; Simien has prevailed in planting his motivated ideas, while presenting a frustrating futility in a way that won’t erase the Madea films already out there, but will make all audiences sharper to the exact problem of them.

Of Simien’s many references, none seems to come as often as Spike Lee, who is name-dropped in both repeated dialogue and even connections within the story (Sam’s job at the radio station is essentially a continuation of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Wake Up!” radio DJ in Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”). It’s a fitting reference for Simien to make, in that Lee didn’t paint his masterpiece of filmmaking identity and worldview until his third film. Like how Lee had to better focus himself to make characters resonate beyond their associations in “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” Simien has an even greater film than “Dear White People” ahead of him. He shows with this debut that passion, the element that vitalizes a voice, is what drives his dynamic cinematic and sociological vision.

“Dear White People” is now playing in Chicago and other select cities. Featuring Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Brandon P Bell, Teyonah Paris, Kyle Gallner, Justin Dobies, and Teyonah Parris. Written and directed by Justin Simien. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com editor and staff writer Nick Allen

Editor & Staff Writer

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