It’s been a while since a movie has been as happily overcrowded as “Dear White People” — as packed with characters, incidents, ideas, provocations, diatribes, and jokes, jokes, jokes, all detonating like incendiary party poppers. The ragged-but-right debut of writer-director Justin Simien, the film doesn’t announce a new filmmaker so much as welcome a fresh sensibility into the conversations our entertainments have about race in America. You have to see this movie, and talk about it, to believe it.
Set at the fictional Winchester College — a TWI (Traditionally White Institution) — among a handful of students of varying colors, “Dear White People” doesn’t see the world in black and white or even shades of gray but as fractious, endless gradations of tan. If there’s a central character, it’s Sam White (Tessa Thompson) — her name is one of Simien’s few rookie missteps — who’s the queen of the Black Students Union and the host of a campus radio show where she shoots out devilish, on-point messages to the school’s majority population. These pop up in the background of the soundtrack like razor-sharp confetti: “Dear white people: The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count” or “Dear white people: Stop dancing.”
Sam’s film studies project — a whiteface silent called “Rebirth of a Nation” — doesn’t go over well, but her bigger shame is that she’s dating the class TA, a gentle, white, upperclassman named Gabe (Justin Dobies). (He knows her darkest secret, too: She’s a Taylor Swift fan.) Her run for the presidency of Armstrong-Parker House, Winchester’s lone African-American residence hall, pits her against Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the handsome scion of the college’s token black dean (Dennis Haysbert, seething hilariously) and a troubled soul who sneaks off from his white girlfriend (Brittany Curran) to get high in the bathroom. Papa would not approve; neither would the more militant black students like Reggie (Marque Richardson), who accuse Troy of majoring in shucking and jiving.
Simien’s larger point — and it’s absurdly overdue in our ongoing social argument — is that we’re desperate to label ourselves and each other; meanwhile, the great cosmic joke about people is that they’re always bigger than their labels. So Colandrea Connors (Teyonah Parris), an ambitious freshman from Chicago’s South Side, can change her name to Coco (“‘Colandrea’ doesn’t really pass the resume test”) and tack so constantly between her two personas that she nearly loses her way.
Or a newcomer like the wannabe journalist Lionel Harris (Tyler James Williams) can have so many labels — he’s black, he’s gay, he’s a nerd, he’s a giant afro that all the white students just have to touch — that everyone else looks right through him. There’s a quietly funny-sad moment where Lionel looks out on the campus green, gazes at the cliques available to him, and closes his eyes in frustration. “Dear White People” says that to be black at a TWI — to be black in America — is to be neurotic by default. The college’s motto is “Nosce Te Ipsum” — Know Thyself — but how can you do that when everyone who looks at you sees something different?
“Dear White People” is the work of a first-timer, no doubt. It’s overwritten, choppily edited, at times naively acted. The white characters are thinly drawn in comparison, not a terrible sin in a pop culture where the reverse is the norm. Yet it’s just about the smartest movie I’ve seen in months and Simien’s weaknesses — he wants to think about, and talk about, and laugh about, and cry about what he sees — turn out to be unexpected strengths. Comparisons to Spike Lee — specifically his 1988 “School Daze” — are inevitable, but while Simien lacks Lee’s prodigious skills as a filmmaker, he sees people more clearly and compassionately. Even Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the sneering head of the college humor magazine and the film’s most obvious villain, is smarter and more self-aware than the goon squad he oversees, if just as blinkered by privilege.
Any movie that features a protest rally outside a theater showing a Tyler Perry movie is on to something. And whenever you’re in doubt, the dialogue comes to the rescue, warm and sharp and poking everyone in his or her blind spots. Sam is plagued by repeated nightmares of being on “The Cosby Show”: “My hair was so straight . . . the sweaters so big. . .” One of the Black Students Union members tries to welcome Lionel: “We’re not homophobes, us black folks. I’m listening to Frank Ocean right now.” Kurt on Sam: “It’s like Spike Lee and Oprah had some pissed-off baby.” Troy sighing to his white girlfriend: “Babe, please don’t say thang like that.”
Everyone wants to be someone else, darker, lighter, realer. That, of course, is where things get dicey. “Dear White People” can’t be all fun and games, and it builds to a “Release Your Inner Negro” party thrown by the white kids at which various punches are thrown and various plot strands resolved. If you think that’s far-fetched, Simien intersperses the end credits with photos from similar events at actual colleges across the country, clueless white dudes and dudettes in blackface and nappy wigs, grinning for the cameras. There’s an anger to this film — there has to be — but it’s cool and contained and, above all, sure of itself. Simien doesn’t want to start a fight; he wants to end the fights. But he knows that will never happen until people see their prejudices — all of them — without fear. That’s a tall order, but it’s good to have an idealist in the house.
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Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.