Dear White People

Directed By: Justin Simien

Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Kyle Gallner, Brittany Curran, Dennis Haysbert, and Marque Richardson

This has been a very interesting couple of weeks in cinema.  Last week, we had the jazz drama Whiplash, a film very personal to me that reminds me of my foray into the world of percussion years ago.  As it stands, I have another film very personal to me in a very different way in this weekend's Dear White People. Having been a black man in the Ivy League, I view this satire of race relations at elite institutions through the lens of my own experiences.  Now five years removed from my Princeton days, I must wonder how that lens has changed.  In any event, Dear White People is a strong message condemning the status quo at the Ivies in the form of biting satire.

Winchester University is an Ivy League institution where race issues are prevalent despite the school's public statements to the contrary.  After a blackface party that results in an alleged "riot", the film chronicles the events leading up to this fateful night.  Without consulting the student body, President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen) and Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) recently rolled out a new policy known as the Randomization Housing Act that will fundamentally change the way housing works.  The end result is that the predominantly African-American residential housing will be effectively dismantled.  This causes widespread discontent among the black community at Winchester, and outspoken student Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is leading the charge.

Known for her online broadcast Dear White People in which she tells her white counterparts all about their misconceptions of their fellow black students on campus, Samantha is looking to challenge the administration on the new housing policy by becoming president of her dormitory and putting together a petition.  To do so, she must beat her ex-boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), who just happens to be the son of the dean.  As Sam's show continues to thrive and irritate many white students and administrators alike, Colandrea "Coco" Conners (Teyonah Parris) takes notice and tries to build her own brand to get a gig on a reality show.  To do so, she's going to betray her principles and end up partnering with Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), a white student frequently at odds with Sam.  Elsewhere, gay black sophomore Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an aspiring journalist, has been displaced from his off-campus apartment and is looking to make a name for himself writing an article on the "race wars" brewing at Winchester.

Reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film in cinematography and usage of charming little chapter names, Dear White People is a healthy dose of satire directed not only at elite institutions but also uninformed whites everywhere.  Sprinkled with quirky humor and a plethora of pop culture references, Justin Simien's feature film debut is intended to educate those who are culturally conditioned to believe the stereotypes and myths erroneously perpetuated throughout society.  Full of tension and beautifully diverse, this college-themed satire addresses quite a few of the challenges black Ivy Leaguers encounter in their tenure at the nation's top universities.  While I believe the conversation the film broaches is an important one, there's something about it that's lacking.  Though I laud Simien for doing what few filmmakers have the guts to do in Dear White People, I can't quite put my finger on what's missing from the film.  Perhaps because I've lived it, it lacks a certain authenticity for me.

The film features solid performances from all involved.  For his part as our lead Lionel Higgins, Tyler James Williams delivers a solid comedic performance.  He's an unmistakable pariah and offers plenty of biting side commentary as this low-key sophomore navigating the rough social terrain of Winchester.  For her part as Samantha White, Tessa Thompson delivers a feisty performance that offers a message emblematic of what I'm sure many of my fellow people have thought at one point or another as we interact with individuals of other persuasions.  Thompson plays on the stereotypical militant black and adds the right nuance to humanize her character and showcase her fragility.  We also have Teyonah Parris in an alluring yet self-effacing performance as Colandrea Conners.  It's intriguing to watch her character take off her mask to sidestep her roots and then put on another that subsequently shames them.  Lastly, Dennis Haysbert and Brandon P. Bell make for an intriguing father-son pair with some rather strong personalities.

Dear White People may not hit the spot for me completely, but I do recognize the importance of a film like this.  This amusing satire is definitely worth a viewing at a minimum.  This indie comedy-drama gets a strong 0.06% rating.  Have a few glasses of moscato with this one.