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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.