Director: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Kyle Gallner, Dennis Haysbert
Release Date: October 17th, 2014
Dear White People is the rare movie that slowly but persistently earns a viewer’s attention and proves to be much more than the title suggests. The film’s title may refer to one college student’s controversial radio program program where she offers advice to white people, page but the feature offers up a lot more than one cynical student’s look at the white students on campus.
Tessa Thompson stars as Samantha White, the host of the radio program. At first, she is simply presented as a student who wants to make a difference on campus and who strives to undermine the university’s administration. The administration, she notes, has been trying to shut down the black house on campus for years.
Samantha is more focused on making a statement than changing the world. When her house on campus hosts their annual elections, she is amazed when she beats the smooth-talking and responsible incumbent Troy (Brandon P Bell). Samantha, it seems, is not ready for the responsibilities of her position.
Her character— easily the main one here— serves as only the story’s starting figure. In its 100 minute running time though, Dear White People smartly introduces a variety of characters, who range from being likeable to being completely vainglorious. There’s a young black gay student named Lionel (Tyler James Williams), who doesn’t fit into any clique. There’s the reality star wannabe named Coco (Teyonah Parris). There’s also an obnoxious white student named Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who believes that racism is a thing of the past.
There are some obvious villains here including the gay-bashing Kurt and his father (Peter Syvertsen), the university president who clearly didn’t deserve the leadership position he’s been given. Those characters are over-the-top and more one-note than they should have been.
However, the strength of the film as a whole is how it presents so many other characters in a more thoughtful and understanding way. Samantha, for one, is a much more engaging and interesting character than even her friends realize. Despite her reputation for rebellion, she’s knows that she’s more than her radio personality suggests. “I’m done being everybody’s angry black chick,” she notes when she realizes how much she’s become a caricature on campus. The same depth is provided for Coco, who knows that she has to have a big abrasive personality to become famous and easily acquiesces to the demands of Hollywood stereotypes.
Dear White People also showcases writer/director Justin Simien’s intent to mock obvious targets and black stereotypes. It seems inevitable that Fox News and the Republican Party will be targets for this satire but so too is the Hollywood industry as a whole and Tyler Perry movies. Simien has a keen eye on pop culture and is smart enough to mock some of its sillier stereotypes without being too blatant about it.
While Dear White People lacks certain qualities and offers up a few simplistic characters, it has a keen wit and smart outlook and overcomes its flaws by oftentimes exploring deeper themes about culture and politics that safer movies would easily avoid.
Dear White People offers up a distinct voice and a unique sharpness that’s willing to offend and enlighten many of its viewers and that’s why it succeeds beyond some of its limitations.
Review by: John Hanlon