Dear White People

Movie Information

The Story: An ensemble look at race relations — in primarily comedic terms — at a largely white Ivy League college. The Lowdown: Fresh, witty, moving, edgy film that overcomes most of its first-time-filmmaker problems by the force of its characters and the drive of the film.
Score:

Genre: Satirical Comedy Drama
Director: Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Dennis Haysbert
Rated: R

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Call me cynical, but the quickest way to get me to approach a film with extreme caution and grave misgivings is to cite any of the following: Sundance awards, Sundance buzz, Internet buzz or indeed anything involving the word “buzz.” With this in mind, I was not exactly looking forward to Justin Simien’s debut feature Dear White People, but it didn’t take long for Simien to almost completely win me over with his movie’s clever blend of comedy, social observation, humanity and its efforts at being a stylish entertainment. It’s not perfect by any means. Most of the film’s romantic scenes — at least those involving sex — bog things down to the point of near tedium. And a lot of Simien’s efforts at crafting a stylish film are more notable for the attempt than the execution, but they are notable all the same. But the tone of the film, what it has to say and the often droll way in which it says it — these things are solid and special.

 

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All of us respond to movies based on the baggage and frame of reference we bring to them. That means I’m approaching Dear White People with a certain set of values — barely middle class, left-leaning liberal, 60-year-old white guy — and a frame of reference that made me think more of Whit Stillman’s dry comedies than it did the work of Spike Lee (to whom Simien has been compared). Where others connect the film to Lee’s School Daze (1988), it reminds me more of Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) — but with more anger and higher stakes. Whether that’s simply because I saw School Daze once about 25 years ago and saw Damsels in Distress a half dozen times in the past three years, I don’t know. Plus, Simien’s stylistic flourishes seemed more informed by Kubrick than Spike Lee to me. Your mileage will vary depending on what you bring to the film.

 

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The deliberately provocative title, Dear White People, actually refers to the name of a popular, if controversial, radio show (dispensing useful information like “Dear White People, stop dancing”) by Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a black student activist at the film’s fictional Ivy League Winchester University. The film focuses on a group of such black students at this school and their efforts not only to fit in there, but with each other — and in many cases with themselves. Sam is but one of these — although possibly the most outspoken and provocative for both the other characters and the audience. The least outspoken is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a soft-spoken gay kid with an afro from the 1960s, who doesn’t seem to fit in much of anywhere. We also have Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), son of the dean (Dennis Haysbert), who, at the behest of his father, is dating the white daughter (Brittany Curran) of the school’s president (Kyle Gallner). There’s also a character named Coco (Teyonah Parris), who has a lackluster podcast and dreams of being a reality star on TV — only to learn she’s insufficiently “black” and controversial for any such thing.

 

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Delicious ironies abound. Sam is only reluctantly a leader. She wins the presidency of the school’s only African-American house in an election she only entered to make a point — and because she never thought she’d win. She harbors a number of secrets — ranging from being a Taylor Swift fan to having a white boyfriend (Justin Dobies) to one that isn’t revealed for quite a while. Being the face and voice of black activism at Winchester isn’t a role she cherishes. But that’s the whole point of the film — that we’re all so busy not only playing the roles we’re assigned, but the ones we create, that we’re apt to lose sight of ourselves in the process. It isn’t just people who label us; we label ourselves and then try to live up to those labels. (I doubt it is any more coincidental that Simien chose to use music by Tchaikovsky, Bizet and Beethoven on his soundtrack than it is for him to have Lionel not like jazz and Sam to like Taylor Swift.)

 

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It doesn’t all work. There are possibly too many characters. Some of the jokes are too obvious (the attack on Tyler Perry is justifiable, but so easy that it’s not very funny). But it mostly works, and its constant barrage of ideas and gags and observations that keep rolling out in a seemingly endless stream — punctuated by moments of true pain and heartache — more than balance out any shortcomings. Smart, witty and sensitive, Dear White People is a movie that ought to be seen — probably more than it will be. Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Dear White People

      • Ken Hanke

        Well, the whole business of likening to other films set at colleges is…well, why not say that Damsels in Distress was a re-release of Good News! from 1930?

        • Edwin Arnaudin

          For me, it’s not just the setting but the topics under discussion that warrant comparison. I think School Daze, Higher Learning and Dear White People are all pretty megaphone message-y while still succeeding in getting their points across.

          Not having seen Good News!, does it thematically overlap with Damsels?

          • Ken Hanke

            It’s a college comedy with music, But it’s still a comedy set at a college. I don’t get this “megaphone message-y” in connection with Dear White People. I’m not sure I’ve seen Higher Learning, but, yeah, I’d call School Daze “megaphone message-y” in the crudest sense, but that seems true to me of Spike Lee whenever he goes preachy. In fact, my reaction to School Daze was that it was obvious and annoying, It’s all in the tone. Dear White People entertained me without annoying me and felt like a much more nuanced work than School Daze. Maybe if I sat through School Daze again, I’d see more connection, but, for me and based on my memory, it’s not a good cudgel to use on Dear White People.

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    I think there are a lot of moments in Dear White People where characters are turned into uninspired mouthpieces for Simien and the message feels obvious and preachy. I found his satire to work best when it’s in the service of something one step removed from conversation, namely the radio show.

    • Ken Hanke

      Well, the difference is I don’t. Since last I commented, I watched the first 20 min. of School Daze on Netflix. Yes, it’s a more accomplished piece of filmmaking. It also has Hollywood backing. From a technical standpoint, you’d do better to compare Dear White People to She’s Gotta Have It. But that to one side, these are very different films from very different times with very different concerns. And, yes, I still find School Daze — no matter how accomplished as filmmaking — annoying. Mostly, this stems from the really broad humor in Lee’s film, which is replaced by much, much drier humor in Simien’s. Dear White People still feels more like Whit Stillman to me than it does Spike Lee.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        I don’t even like School Daze all that much, but I think it shows signs of the far better work Lee would go on to make, much as Dear White People hints at bigger, better things from Simien.

  2. Call me cynical, but the quickest way to get me to approach a film with extreme caution and grave misgivings is to cite any of the following: Sundance awards, Sundance buzz, Internet buzz or indeed anything involving the word “buzz.”

    So that’s why you were so lukewarm on TOY STORY.

        • Edwin Arnaudin

          If you count The Original Kings of Comedy, I’ve seen 16.

          • Ken Hanke

            I have, it seems, seen 11 (without that one, which I was unable to sit through).

      • Me

        Besides the pieces Ive seen here and there on TV, I’ve probably oney seen 5, ha.

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