Justin Simien’s Dear White People is a dagger-sharp satire, a film filled end-to-end with tiny sticks of dynamite, each lit carefully with a gleeful smirk. If such violent metaphors contradict the generally tongue-in-cheek tone, it speaks mostly to the combustible quality of the topics here; like Network or Putney Swope, it feels dangerous, sparked by the charge of secrets told above a whisper. It marks the arrival of Simien (making his feature debut after a handful of shorts) as a major voice; it’s a joyfully confident picture, sophisticated, sexy, and wicked smart.
The setting is the fiercely factionalized campus of the fictional Winchester University, an Ivy League school where racial tensions are on a slow boil. The story is told via a quartet of students, chief among them Samantha White (Veronica Mars’ Tessa Thompson), a biracial campus radical who hosts the titular campus radio show (“Dear white people, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count”) and is unexpectedly voted president of the all-black residence hall. She takes over from Troy (Brandon P. Bell), a popular athlete and son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Elsewhere on campus, Coco (Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn on Mad Men) is an Anglo-ized sophisticate eager to spin her experience into reality show gold, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams, late of Everybody Hates Chris) is a bit of an outcast, uncomfortable with both his race and homosexuality, until he realizes he can mine both for opportunities.
Early on, Simien’s directorial style seems to ape Wes Anderson, all symmetrical compositions and jaunty on-screen text. But in terms of an authorial voice, Simien is like a composite of the best of early Spike Lee; Dear White People has the insider’s view of campus and interracial politics of School Daze, crossed with the tension of Do The Right Thing (and its satire is thankfully free of the dictionary-definition underlining of Bamboozled). And as with Do the Right Thing, he’s building to something — revealed in the opening scene, so I’m not spoiling. The climax is one of those blackface campus parties that pop up in the news (or, more likely, on Gawker) every once in a while. The end credits helpfully provide images from those real parties (and there’s more of them than you might think! All very recent!), while the film brings those images to life. It is, unsurprisingly, pretty ugly stuff.
But as with the best of satire, Dear White People doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Samantha is the focus of the story but not its hero; everybody here is at least a little fucked up, a little hypocritical, a little capable of some creative compromise. Samantha has spirited media debates and complicated sex with the white TA of her film class; Troy sneaks off to his bathroom to smoke weed, treating it with the secret shame of a crack habit, his father admonishing him, “You are not going to be what they all think you are. You are not going to give them that satisfaction.”
These issues of racial (and post-racial) identity are loaded ones, food for extensive thought and analysis, and to Simien’s credit, he gives them full weight while rarely letting the picture lapse into polemic. This is where the script’s devilish sense of humor comes in most handy; it’s so smart that I kept wanting the projectionist to run it back, so I could catch this jab, that bit of quotable dialogue (“Y’all get country clubs, we get to say ‘nigga’”), and the occasional “solid Coming to America reference.” And credit is due to Simien for the skill with which his scenes are snazzily intercut with each other; he’ll often have two or three conversations going at once, using them as counterpoint, creating dialogue both within them and between them. It’s honest-to-God dialectic filmmaking, but such an arid-dry description conveys little of the picture’s fun, or its wit.
And its description — even its title — may do the same disservice. It certainly fills a currently gaping hole in black cinema, which is increasingly populated by Tyler Perry movies and Tyler Perry rip-offs, but it’s not just for black audiences. As social commentary, Dear White People couldn’t be more timely, particularly here in the Obama age, a fact of American life that allows too many white Americans to believe racism is no longer an issue. Or, as Winchester University’s white president puts it, “Racism is over. The only people who are thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” This is a movie that knows better, that peeks into the cracks and shines a bit of light. It’s got its share of problems; the script relies on too many overheard, incriminating conversations, and it goes a bit lumpy at the end, which goes on about ten minutes too long and softens the climax’s bite considerably. But any movie with this much on its mind and this many laughs is worthy of our attention, and praise.
Simien isn’t a timid filmmaker — he loves his characters, but it’s a tough love, and he’s merciless when it comes to the culture at large, cheerfully tossing cherry bombs and naming names. The “fuck Tyler Perry” scene, at a movie theater box office, has too many great lines to get bogged down in quotes (OK, here’s one: “Can we have a movie with, you know, characters in them, instead of stereotypes wrapped in Christian dogma?”) but it’s kind of my new religion; before her election, Samantha insists of her chances, “We live in a world where there’s a Big Momma’s House THREE. I don’t have a chance in hell.” He’s an angry filmmaker, but his anger is exhilarating, and at its best, Dear White People vibrates with the visceral thrill of watching a gifted new voice get away with something.
Dear White People is out tomorrow in limited release.