Dear White People (2014) (R)
The complexities of racism and political correctness can hardly be condensed down to a single movie, let alone a sentence. There are so many intricacies to it that sometimes it feels like it's spiraling out of control. This is "Dear White People" for you in a simple, yet unjust, synopsis: a movie that overwhelms itself with its own subject matter. Sure, you could make a whole movie on who gets to say "the n-word" and yet you still wouldn't manage to pacify all the parties involved.
But "Dear White People" doesn't try to satisfy every single aspect of "the black agenda" just as "Pride" doesn't do this with "the gay agenda" and yet it can't help itself sometimes.
Set in an Ivy league school, "Dear White People" structures itself around college students trying to wrestle with ideas of identification, both that of self and that of imposed. Yet more than that, the film tries to strike some sort of balance between intellectual stimulation and character drama and somehow it manages to not quite meet both of these; but it gives such an audacious attempt that its end result is nothing if not admirable.
The movie begins with clicks and houses. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) has been the face of the "black house" at Winchester and he's about to be replaced by a more controversial figure. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the voice behind a radio show from which the movie gets its title. She's a catalyst for arguments and quite witty when it comes to zany one-liners. "Dear white people, the number of required black friends has now increased to two."
Now replacing the gregarious and very unoffensive Troy, Sam finds power in her hands and doesn't quite know how to deal with that. She never really wanted to rule, she only wanted to reform.
Then there's Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) who is struggling to escape every possible stereotype of black culture that she can, and is failing at all fronts. She tries to be passive, to fit in, to not stir the pot; and yet she wants her name remembered and the easiest way to do that is to stir said pot.
Lastly, but not leastly, we are given Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) a boy who gets hot-potatoed around from house to house, trying to settle into the blurred lines in between black and gay. Here, writer and director Justin Simien makes his best move. Lionel is not only one of the most intriguing people in the film; but he also manages to raise questions and problems without the need for dialogue or explanation, which is all we get from Sam's head.
Still, there is so much complexity to this movie that it's almost impossible to soak it all in on the first view. It's offensive, it's funny, it's chilling, and it's far and beyond one of the more important works that has come out in recent years.
Comparisons to Spike Lee don't really deserve to be made because Spike Lee is featured in the dialogue of the movie as one of the chief black icons. There are references made to Oprah and Tyler Perry and the like...all with such curious commentary. "Dear White People" covers a plethora of issues from biracial couples to homophobia to slurs and back. With so much going on, it's kind of amazing that the film doesn't completely fall apart at the edges.
The movie's beginning lulls you into a false sense of security. Everything feels like a comedy and a very precise comedy too. It's somehow nails the college life in a preppy school, where students have more concern about politics than real issues at hand.
Politics runs deep throughout "Dear White People" as does profiling. The film is so aware of race, as it would have to be to work properly; but to what end? Are we all just people? Is the answer really as cute as all that?
Unfortunately, I find that the film's female characters fall somewhere between the lines of powerful and predictable. I think it was unintentional; but somehow there is a slight overplayed female nuance to the film that, when it does surface, is never pleasant to see. For a film that is about being politically correct or the pointlessness thereof, I would have liked to see that stretch to further boundaries besides only two minorities; but maybe that's me wanting Simien to be too ambitious.
The college life, the hardships of relationships, and racism.
"Dear White People" could have worked as just a social commentary piece, a documentary if you will; but it chose to make a character drama as well and I think this was the right decision. It gives weight to certain events that you may not have considered.
Yet the film could also give its viewer a hyper-sensitive monitor. You notice everything. Coming home from the theater, I was keenly aware of the white man in the Jeep next to me blaring Jay-Z...but what did that mean? "Dear White People" never gives a clear answer; but I don't think it could have.
Still, you need to see this movie because it is not only important, it's a well-constructed movie through and through. Solid acting, a bizarre score, and tangible drama—as a movie it operates as its own; but it always wanted to be more than that. I'm unsure of how successful it was on that level.
Posted by Micah Jones