Friday, October 17, 2014

Dear White People

Dear White People
Dir. Justin Simien

4.5 out of 5

Twenty-five years ago Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing - one of the great American films - opened in theaters amid unfounded fears that its unflinching treatment of prejudice, racism, and violence would spark real-life race riots after the credits rolled.  Today, in 2014, a stylized campus satire called Dear White People climaxes with a horrific and offensive ghetto-themed party and a confrontation between the minority groups at a faux-Ivy League institution and a predominantly white pseudo-fraternity.  Naturally, the local news calls the fracas - which culminates in a single act of violence perpetrated against a black student by a white student - a "race riot."

It would be entirely wrong to point at the incendiary and acerbically funny Dear White People as an example of "how far we've come," starting with the fact that this is exactly the type of ambivalent attitude that writer-director Justin Simien is trying to skewer.  It's a film about the abject harm done by labels to an individual's humanity, even more so for nascent adults on a college campus, surrounded by people that one thinks would be smarter and more considerate than the randoms who routinely practice acts of intolerance.

Yet there's also a seductive quality to certain labels - as long as you're the one doing the choosing.  The schism between self-identity and the perception of the outside world is front and center in Dear White People, where double lives are essential to its main ensemble.  Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the strapping BMOC, future lawyer and politician, and son of Winchester College's dean of students (Dennis Haysbert), who also sneaks off to the bathroom to smoke joints and write jokes in hopes of joining the staff of Pastiche, the school's Lampoon-esque humor magazine.  Coco (Teyonah Parris) - née Colandrea - is a refined social operator and aspiring celebrity who begins to accept that the only way to get noticed is to amplify the stereotypical aspects of her racial identity.  She's inspired in part by Samantha (Tessa Thompson), the film's nominal protagonist, a no-nonsense biracial firebrand with the titular button-pushing radio show where she launches her righteous crusades - when she's not betraying her deep sensitivity in an affair with her white TA.

The breakout among the uniformly outstanding cast, however, is Tyler James Williams as a soft-spoken misfit named Lionel, a gay black nerd too culturally "white" for many of the black students but still unable to avoid the everyday indignities that accompany life as a black face in a white place.  And what the film does best, for Lionel and the others, is pair sharply-written asides and acrobatic social critiques (my favorite: a throwaway bit about the racist fears and assumptions embedded in the movie Gremlins) with the tossed-off comments and sins of omission that scuttle any idealist's dream of a post-racial generation.  Simien takes an appropriately nuanced view toward different types of ignorance: not just the loud, obvious kind of Pastiche's sophomoric ringleader (Kyle Gallner), but also another dangerously ambivalent kind that thrives on the societal taboo against displays of negative emotion, particularly coming from people of color.

Dear White People seems to be the product of that kind of emotion, channeling its righteous indignation through sharp, intelligent humor and well-drawn, sympathetic characters - none better than Lionel, who stands as the awkward manifestation of a fragmented identity.  His ongoing struggle to define his own blackness - or gayness, or shyness - is indicative of the light touch Simien brings when the film tilts too much toward symbolism.  It's not hard to find quibbles with the first-time director's approach: the plotting is somewhat confused, the themes heavy-handed, and he may encourage more reductive readings by consistently framing actors as talking heads or talk-show commentators while they recite their ideological bullet points.  Still, Dear White People's refreshing candor means that it never claims to have all the answers.  It's a fitting sort of honesty for a movie that doesn't try to satisfy any expectations but its own.

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