Dear White People is a strong debut for a newcomer director, who tackles sensitive racial and cultural topics with wit, sensitivity, and thoughtful commentary.
Dear White People takes place at the (fictional) Winchester University, as seen from the perspectives of four black students who go there. That includes Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a politically-active film student, who expresses her thoughts via a radio show titled “Dear White People”; Lionel Higgens (Tyler James Williams), an introverted aspiring journalist whose sexual orientation makes him uncomfortable around other black students; Colandrea ‘Coco’ Connors (Teyonah Parris), a Youtube video blogger as well as wannabe reality TV star; and Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the poplar son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert), who’s often pushed towards positions of student government leadership by his father.
Life at this Ivy League college presents day-to-day challenges for these students, as they attempt to find ways to express themselves and figure out their identity in the modern world. However, the tension simmering beneath everyone’s surface threatens to boil over when Pastiche – the school’s all-white (and often racially insensitive) humorous publication – begin planning the theme for their big Halloween party that year…
Written and directed by Justin Simien (making his feature-length debut), Dear White People is an independently-funded project that earned much critical acclaim and a top prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The movie very much feels like the work of a first-time filmmaker, eager to not just find a way to express his own voice so that it sounds unique, but also tackle a very big topic (how the larger culture both informs and affects how people form their own identity). Dear White People is a strong debut for a newcomer director, who tackles sensitive racial and cultural topics with wit, sensitivity, and thoughtful commentary.
Simien’s Dear White People script is quite wordy, on the whole; fortunately, as a director, Simien and his cinematographer Topher Osborn (The Morning After) do a very solid job of shooting the film in such a way that it doesn’t feel so much like a collection of talking heads and little more. The variation in shot choices, visual composition, and modern filmmaking techniques (see: graphics to represent text messages) results in a movie that feels more cinematic, even though the “action” is mostly just people talking to each other. While there are certainly some flaws (in terms of camerawork) and room for overall improvement, it’s nothing that Simien’s newfound experience (as well as a somewhat larger budget) can’t fix.
Dear White People, on the surface, examines the status quo (re: Obama-era America) from the perspective of four young black people, but the deeper issues the film’s characters wrestle with should be relatable to anyway who’s ever struggled to define themselves and/or figure out how to present themselves to the world – everyone, in other words. Simien’s script is more character-driven than plot-driven, but by the end he has presented each of the main players with a satisfying arc – and is even able to leave some of their story threads open-ended, so that filmgoers can make up their own minds about lies ahead for those onscreen.
The Dear White People cast is tasked with handling very articulate and sophisticated dialogue, but prove quite capable at delivering the material quickly and with aplomb while still offering fully-realized performances that allow their characters to resemble real people, rather than puppets spouting out Simien’s writing. Tessa Thompson as Sam – who’s rarely afraid to get up on her soap box – has the chewiest dialogue to get through, but she does so with the sort of verbal finesse that’s usually only required by an Aaron Sorkin script. And yet, at the same time, she brings real humanity to Sam, making her conflicted desires feel all the more impactful and emotionally resonant for viewers.
Thompson’s fellow Dear White People stars – Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris, Go On), Teyonah Parris (Mad Men), and Brandon P Bell (Hollywood Heights) – likewise brings the right mix of vulnerability, personality, and uncertainty to their own respective characters. Meanwhile, in the supporting role arena, Dennis Haysbert (24) doesn’t have to stretch his acting muscles much, but nonetheless brings the needed authority and presence to Manchester’s seasoned dean. Similarly, such people as Kyle Gallner (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Brittany Curran (Chicago Fire), Brandon Alter (The People’s Agency), and newcomer Justin Dobies are given enough room to portray white characters that feel authentic – and span the spectrum in terms of attitudes toward the status quo of race and cultural identity.
At the end of the day, Dear White People does what Spike Lee’s early work managed to do: use cinema in a unique and captivating way to explore issues related to race and identity, without the resulting movie coming off as a glorified diatribe. Because the film has such a distinctly personal and “indie” feel, it just won’t be for everyone; however, those who do decide to give Dear White People a look should find the experience to be quite worthwhile and rewarding.
Dear White People is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 108 minutes long and is Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.
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