Writer-director Justin Simien’s terrific directorial debut, “Dear White People,” is hilarious, thought-provoking, fun, witty, sleek, visually assured, and whip-smart through and through. It’s a return to the “black smart-house” films of the 1980s that Simien so admires (and references quite a bit), like Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and “Do The Right Thing,” but it is also very much of the moment. Despite its incendiary title, it’s not an indictment of white people generally, although it is an exploration of the harms of white privilege, including how having good intentions can still result in basic racism.
Instead, it focusses on a quartet of black students at a mostly white, elite liberal arts college, in the lead-up to a black-themed frat party: a racist gathering that’s more common across this country than you might think. Simien shoots his protagonists from below, and they tower over the frame, empowered, even as they struggle to figure things out. It’s a heightened reality where the characters spout epigrams like it’s no big deal.
We meet the highly intelligent and articulate Samantha (Tessa Thompson of “Veronica Mars” in a star-making turn), whose controversial radio show gives the film its name and who acts as the black students’ angry crusader; her overachieving ex-boyfriend Troy (Brandon P. Bell), who feels the burden of being a symbol of black advancement; his admirer Coco (Teyonah Parris of “Mad Men”), a girl who wants to be in the spotlight but fears her blackness might get noticed; and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the gay freshman with an out-of-control afro, who finds himself writing a story for the school paper, about which he knows little, because it needed a black author.
At least, that’s how they’re first presented. But Simien’s film is far too smart to be about stereotypes: everyone’s identity, and in particular, how they see themselves, gets complicated by multiple factors. By looking specifically at “being a black face in a white place”, the film resonates more universally about the malleability of identity and personal mythology, and how we deal with not quite fitting in. Simien uses Sam’s witty and confrontational radio show (“Dear White People: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.”), and her “Ebony and Ivy” guidebook, as a narrative device to bring humour and to get in key information about the difference between racism and prejudice, how that prejudice can get internalized by black people, and to articulate the race-related struggles his characters face. But it’s too witty, and Sam too complicated and flawed, for it to ever feel preachy.
Simien presents identity as something that is a constant work-in-progress – the title card that introduces Coco has her given name, Colandrea, crossed out and replaced with Coco – and something that we’re constantly asked to define and perform for others. The film is brimming with visual references to other films – from “Metropolis” to “Persona” – because these are people deliberately taking pop culture cues to define who they are. All the characters are in the spotlight in some way, whether it’s Sam and Troy, who stand on a stage with bright lights overhead, as they give their campaign speeches, or Lionel who is writing for a large audience. It’s not a coincidence that the film is full of internal audiences – individuals characters look directly into lens at us, and the camera often focuses on large groups of characters staring into the lens – because when you look different from the majority of people around you, you’re always in the spotlight.
The characters all struggle to figure out which labels fit them or which groups they belong to. Yes, these labels tend to have something to do with race, but you could replace the term “black” with any minority group like, say, “Jewish,” and “white” with “WASP,” and find a lot of similar scenarios that resonate. The light-skinned Sam is biracial, and having trouble coming to terms with what that means – she can’t admit to herself that she prefers her secret white boyfriend Gabe (Justin Dobies) over fellow militant black activist Reggie (Marque Richardson) who is right for her on paper, but who just doesn’t get her. She is also, as the Dean suggests, overcompensating.
And as Sam suggests, she’s not the only one: that’s part of what drives the Dean to push his son, a somewhat reluctant Troy, into student politics. Lionel feels like he’s not “black” enough for the black kids (“I listen to Mumford and Sons, and watch Robert Altman movies”), too “black” for the white kids, and not effeminate enough for the gay kids. There’s a great scene where the camera takes on his perspective, scanning around the school quad at the different cliques, who each turn toward the lens in slow motion, as it dawns on him that none of the labels seem to fit. So he chooses to not join any groups and finds himself isolated and lonely.
Regardless of how they identify, the protagonists each find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of modulating their “blackness” up or down, depending on which crowd they’re with and what they want. Troy is the most malleable of all, desperate to fit in with the white kids, even if that means taking on an “urban” dialect and persona just to do it. Lionel expresses his discomfit with being a black face in a white place with awkward self-deprecating “black” jokes: “the Negro at the door is not here to rape you.” Coco just desperately wants to be in the limelight, so she starts a video blog to offer a contrary take on being black from Sam’s, but whenever she finishes recording, she squirms and looks uneasy about what she’s just put out there.
It’s often through their romantic relationships that they’re forced to admit how they really feel and who they really are. Sam’s relationship with her white TA Gabe has a lot of layers to it and is wonderfully told. She feels uneasy about dating a white boy – as if she’s betraying her race, but she also worries that maybe he wants or expects something from her because of her race. But he’s enlightened: their idea of foreplay is having a heated argument about racial politics, which she’ll usually win, to both of their satisfactions. He sees her clearly, past the militant façade to the conflicted woman, possibly, in part, because he doesn’t have his own racial baggage to bring to the table. Troy and Coco, on the other hand, both think they want white partners, but secretly prefer each other; it’s telling that when Simien shoots them together, post-coitous, it’s with artful and sensual silhouettes, the only truly intimate moment either experiences in the film.
“Dear White People” is a must-see film, which you’ll want to bring everyone you know to see. It is at once a coming-of-age story, a laugh-a-minute comedy, and a satire up there with “In the Loop,” with a really great soundtrack. Its characters are incredibly smart, but it’s not something the film ever has to remark on. It has the same magnetic playfulness, and occasional clunkiness, as “Cruel Intentions,” but it’s got as much depth as the best of films. The cast have flawless comic timing, but can also tap into a deep well of emotions, especially Thompson and Williams, who have finally been given material worthy of their talents.
I’ve seen the film with a mixed audience, and a mostly black audience, and it’s interesting how differently it plays with both: you get the sense that it’s nailing the black experience, although different things are funny to different groups, but you can also see how much the film resonates with everyone, including the white people it purports to address. Not everyone is happy with the compromises or choices the characters make, even if those choices are the result of the characters being true to themselves. But the one thing that both my screenings had in common was the sheer delight we all experienced watching this highly entertaining and intelligent film. With his first film, “Dear White People,” Justin Simien has proven himself to be one the most exciting emerging voices in cinema. See it.
“Dear White People” opens across the US today, and in the Bay Area in Redwood City, Mountain View, San Jose, and San Francisco. It will open in Canada in mid-November.