Studio: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions (100 min.)
Plot: The lives of four black students at an Ivy League college converge after controversy breaks out due to the ill-conceived annual Halloween party.
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon P. Bell, Teyonah Parris, Dennis Haysbert
Bottom Line: ****
By Samantha Ofole-Prince
A pacy, punchy ensemble piece set in a fictional Ivy League college, “Dear White” people glides effortlessly from comedy to cultural commentary, eliciting excellent performances from a perfectly selected cast.
This edgy effort of director Justin Simien follows four high-achieving black students at Winchester University who each face a unique dilemma of dealing with cultural identity.
There’s Samantha (Tessa Thompson) a biracial student struggling to pick a side; Lionel (Tyler James Williams) an introverted gay guy with a bad afro who doesn’t fit neatly into cultural norms; Troy (Brandon P. Bell) who is trying to figure out his own path and finally Coco (Teyonah Parris) who is willing to do whatever it takes to fit in with her white classmates. This is a smart and witty offering which bursts with energy.
Simien who also wrote the script has successfully shaken up the 2014 Sundance Film Festival with this debut feature film, but like many young first-time writers and directors, he had little luck getting Hollywood’s attention and launched a guerilla campaign using social media to smartly get the word out.
“A lot of people responded to the material on a personal level, but there isn’t much to compare this movie to. We are doing something that feels new and it was frightening to the gatekeepers,” says Simien.
A film that takes a hard look at racial identity, the story circles around Samantha (Thompson), who sparks controversy between the black characters. As host of a comical and popular student radio show called “Dear White People,” she spurts controversy and commentary with acerbic, provocative remarks such as “Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised…to two.” “Sorry,” she adds, “but your weed-man, Tyrone, does not count.”
Samantha also pleads with white people to stop touching her hair: “Does this look like a petting zoo to you?” An outspoken ‘wannabee Angela Davis’ type, Sam, meanwhile, has a white boyfriend she’s trying to keep a secret. When she is elected house president, she rattles a few nerves, from Troy (Bell), son of the university’s dean (Dennis Haysbert) who initially held the post to Coco (Parris), who tries to use the controversy to carve out a career in reality TV. But there are more cages to be rattled when it’s discovered there’s a Halloween party titled “Unleash Your Inner Negro,” which is being hosted by the university president’s white son Kurt (Kyle Gallner).
It’s a satirical look at black culture, and Simien’s cute observation distils humor from accuracy rather than caricature. He doesn’t ask us to judge the characters, or even to understand everything they do, but simply wants us to relate to their situations.
“The movie is really about identity and the relationship between identity and self and potential. It isn’t meant to address one group or another about all the things that they do wrong. It’s meant to show people in these situations,” shared Simien. “The title simply helps start a conversation that primes people for the movie.”
A sharp and funny film about racial politics at a predominantly white college, Simien knows exactly where he is taking us, and how to get there.
This column was printed in the November 16, 2014 - November 29, 2014 edition.