Dear White People (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
The goal of satire is, as it should be, to get a reaction from the audience. The subject of race continues to define America and so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that a movie like this is not made very often, especially from the perspective of young adults. While writer-director Justin Simien is able to invoke a reaction, both good and bad, “Dear White People” is not too sharp a satire that bites deeply into the flesh of what makes its subject such a hot issue. Its focus and momentum is too consistently distilled by possible romantic connections and it comes across like an expected dance.
We learn from the prologue that Winchester University, an Ivy League school, has come under the scrutiny of national media because of an “African-American”-themed Halloween party hosted by white students—blackface and all. Jumping back six months, we meet a sophomore student, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who hosts a radio program that aims to pinpoint white people’s ignorance of black identity and culture via one-liners; a first-year named Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who is having trouble sorting out his housing situation; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the ambitious son of the university’s dean; and Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the leader of the house that will eventually host the controversial Halloween party.
At times the film comes across like a two-part pilot of a television show that has the potential to survive early cancellation. It introduces colorful characters with verve, wit, humor, and intelligence. Further, the script allows each performer to make an impact since each character harbors a specific perspective. The problem is that there are too many people worth knowing and the material sometimes attempts to make each one well-rounded and complex.
This is a miscalculation because satire is about extreme characters and there is no need to humanize them as one would, say, in a drama. One might argue the material is less about the characters and more about the audience. After all, the movie itself is serving as as a mirror when it comes to way we treat ourselves, especially as minorities in America, and others who may be “different” to us. What the picture should have done is to consistently expose what is wrong in our current society when the subject of race is brought up without having to create a typical dramatic arc. It would have felt more alive if it had the courage to adopt a more creative template.
I enjoyed Teyonah Parris’ performance as a black person who feels a desperate need to distance herself from her culture. Her character feels ashamed that she comes from the “ghetto” and so she covers it up by embracing all that is typically “white”—rather, what she considers to be white attributes. Her character, Colandrea Conners, preferring to go by “Coco” because she claims it sounds less “ghetto,” is probably the easiest person to dislike, but I wanted to get to know her most. Parris has small but great moments like passing by a black guy in a crowded room but her body language communicates he is not worthy of being around her even for a split-second. It is in those minute moments that I found truth in the film. I wanted to see more of that—no explanation is required because we are all guilty of some form of stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
So why am I giving “Dear White People” a recommendation? I enjoyed about half of what is shown and, more importantly, because it made an effort to be about something. Although it has its missteps and limitations, it is better than most movies that target undergraduates and similar age group, many of which never bother to be about something as long as the audiences laugh a lot and are not forced to think too hard. On that level, I found it refreshing.