Review: “Dear White People” (***)

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Part of the ensemble cast of “Dear White People”

I’d been looking forward to seeing writer/director Justin Simien’s feature film debut, “Dear White People,” for quite some time now. After gaining steam at Sundance earlier this year, it played as the final film at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF). I was on staff at the time for ATLFF, and the hype and excitement for this film, it was, quite literally, more than we could handle. We had to turn people away, giving them only our most syruped and sincere apologies as we walked them back out the front doors; we brought additional chairs into the theatre, chairs that were cumbersome and heavy and strangely angular (I know, I carried some); some staff and crew were reduced to standing in the back desperate to catch even a small glimpse. The theatre was vibrating with anticipatory energy, an extremely tangible excitement. I, unfortunately, had to attend to other business, what with me being on staff and all, so I wasn’t able to sit down and watch.

I went to see “Dear White People” last night at Phipps Theatre knowing only three things about this film:

  1. It’s called “Dear White People.”
  2. It’s supposed to be a satire.
  3. It’s been a tinderbox of conversation and interest, whether for reasons good or bad, I’m not entirely certain. 

And in all honesty, I left my comfy recliner feeling rather confused about the movie, mostly because I wasn’t sure how the movie wanted me to feel about it. Was this a satire? If so, what exactly was it satirizing? Is this what they think college is actually like? Why are all of the black characters so, so, so serious? Don’t they like to party, too? Why aren’t they out celebrating on Halloween? Why are there so many grudges? How are these twenty year olds so knowing and wise? Do we really think that campus authority and administrators would so easily brush over this huge racial altercation that happens at the end of the film? No way. With a title like “Dear White People,” I expected this movie to make statements. Big, bold, capitalized statements about race culture in America. And I did get some of that, but not, necessarily, in the way that I expected.

“Dear White People” takes place on this fictional Ivy League college campus. The plot is driven around four primary characters, which I feel it necessary to mention are all outrageously good-looking. They’re gorgeous, every single one of them. We have the wise and vocal and noble, Sam White, who we later learn isn’t quite as assured as she pretends to be; the marble sculpted, perfect-but-secretly-pot-smoking Dean’s son, Troy Fairbanks; next is the mumbling gay outcast Lionel, who is my favorite character; and finally we have CoCo, the attention-seeking, flawed, and ladder-climbing socialite.

Sam, she’s gorgeous, which is part of the appeal in her performance. She’s certainly awarded the most screen time, but I found myself so quickly tired by her. She’s always so wise and right and assured; every time she speaks, she makes a statement on her race and her culture and in nearly every scene is rewarded with reverberating applause from her peers. And I can buy into this self-assured attitude. That, to me, seems like a typical 20-year-old attitude. When she explains that black people can’t be racist because they’re not disadvantaged based on race, I concede. I’m like, okay, alright, she would be that bold, that loud and assured because at age twenty you think you know what you’re talking about. And that’s not to say she doesn’t, but I can’t decide if this film is asking me to agree with her or if it’s poking fun at her naïve and flippant attitude. And then we hear about her troubled history and her father’s illness and we’re privy to her secret love affair with a white man (gasp!), and I feel like we’re sort of pushed and forced into empathizing with her.

Speaking of her secret white boyfriend, her confession at the end of the movie about how she loves him and was always embarrassed that her father was white and it was hard for her growing up, though that was a tender and beautiful moment, I found it to be wildly unnecessary to the plot. I felt that way about quite a few things actually, things that had they not been in “Dear White People,” I think it would have been a stronger movie. And that, to me, is the surefire sign of a first-time feature film directing and writing venture. Simien has all of these great ideas and he wants to include every single one; it’s too much and the film becomes quickly murky and cluttered. I think, for example, that movie would have been stronger without that last scene with Sam and her white boyfriend; it would have been stronger without the dean vs. president backstory, and the caustic and consequent battle between their sons. We don’t need all these ill-conceived protests, though I suppose that’s accurate, because, really, what college protest isn’t ill-conceived? I don’t at all buy into the hoopla of the party invitation and how all that played out, that’s just not how college works. That’s not how college is actually constructed. Which is fine, I realize this is a fictional film, and they’re going to take liberties with whatever it is they want to, but the disconnect between this college and real college, it became a distraction for me, and as a consequence, the movie become a tad and a tier more implausible. A few unnecessary characters, too. Lionel’s editors, for example, are wildly unnecessary; they didn’t drive or move the plot in any direction at all. I thought the whole reality television show plotline was wildly unnecessary and overdrawn.

Tyler James Williams as Lionel in “Dear White People”

Lionel and Coco, for me, we’re the most interesting characters, which, I think, is because they were less like tropes, less like portraits. They were individualized and flawed in a way that felt recognizable. As I watched them, and I felt myself nodding because, at some point, I absolutely felt some of that hormonal-angst and identity-confusion in college and high school. That self-aware, tepid navigation of life. It’s hard, especially in college, to know what’s right where you’re immersed in an environment specifically catered to creating that sense of belonging and unity; life just doesn’t work that way. Your identity isn’t handed to you in a box with a bow. Instead, it’s fluid and moving, and I think that CoCo and Lionel best represented that idea.

“Dear White People” is a quick film, and when the dialogue was flowing and fast, so fast that you feel almost like you have to snap your fingers to keep pace, it’s delightful. It’s beautiful writing and beautiful delivery, and it’s fun to watch. This movie doesn’t work as a satire, because all of this racial tension and conflict they talk about, it’s true. The party at the end of the movie, those parties happen. It’s horrible. I can appreciate that moment, because we, as viewers are forced to confront it. There’s nothing to satirize, race is still a huge issue in America.

I look forward to watching Justin Simien’s work future work unfold; I think he’s in for a bright future. I’d suggest watching this, I’d even recommend it if only to encourage thoughtful conversation afterwards. I wouldn’t call it a must-see.

3 out of 5 stars.
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