Dear White People (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
26Jan/150

Dear White People (2014)

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As much as the school officials would like to say otherwise, racism still exists on any college campus.  Sam, with her show Dear White People, does what she can to fight white hegemony on what little space she's been allowed.  When the racist upstarts on campus think it's cute to have an east coast versus west coast party, Sam starts thinking of how she can shed a spotlight on this vile corner of school.  Justin Simien writes and directs Dear White People with stars Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Dennis Haysbert, and Kyle Gallner.

Waiting for the boomThroughout the first couple of acts of Dear White People, I had this gnawing sensation that writer / director Justin Simien's movie was going to be hitting a lot of low-hanging fruit.  One showdown between heroine Sam (Tessa Thompson) and Kurt (Kyle Gallner) was particularly rough.  Sam is an amazing character, caught between different cultural worlds where she is expected to adjust her behavior in each register accordingly, but really just wants to screw the system up.  Kurt is less stellar as he is a trust fund, blind to his own privilege white male whose father keeps Kurt in good standing no matter what happens at the school.  When they fight it's because Kurt is taking the easiest positions to knock down, how racism has to be over because the President is black, and that the hardest thing in America right now is to be an educated white guy.

About halfway through, something started to bother me.  I wasn't sure of what, exactly, but the gnawing sensation I had that Simien's film was just setting up easy targets started to get turned around in my mind and heart.  Was Kurt really such an obvious target?  I'm used to reading and watching white people speak those ridiculous viewpoints, but despite my thinking that it was an too-easy cinematic target I couldn't think of many other films that presented people in that way.  So I went back further, thinking about the way Spike Lee's School Daze or John Singleton's Higher Learning looked at black life on a college campus and suddenly realized I had not been feeling the breeze shooting over my head as I was badly missing the point.

Perception check: if your reaction to Dear White People involves wondering where the nuanced white roles are, you're likely missing the point.

Perception check: if your reaction to Dear White People involves wondering where the nuanced white roles are, you're likely missing the point.

Simien's film only superficially resembles other predominantly black campus movies because I was making superficial comparisons.  My reaction to Kurt, whose outlook seems simple and easily dismissed, is because he's a caricature of easily identifiable negative elements - not unlike the kind of caricature that's dominated the token role for black performers in nary a many white production.  No sooner did I realize this that I began to notice the slow and mature transformation taking place in every scene of Dear White People.  By the time the credits have rolled Simien has painted a much broader satirical portrait of the supposedly liberal and accepting college campus, an "unbiased" media, and found there is no villain who can fit all those roles so snugly when the systems are rotten to the core.

Enough about Kurt, let's circle back to the unique voice Simien writes and directs with.  Sometimes I can talk about the two separately as a bad script can be elevated with superb direction or vice versa.  But with Dear White People the choice to build characters as shallow archetypes is directly intertwined with the straightforward direction of the first half of the film.  At first it does not seem the characters will be little more than quippy slices of the same disaffected voice, much like the images are all carefully framed so the visual information is blatantly spelled out, but as Sam (whose eyes we primarily see the film through) adds nuance to her viewpoint the movie evolves along with her.

The key scene is when Sam is taken to task for her posturing by her boyfriend, who points out she tells people her favorite director is Spike Lee when it's really Ingmar Bergman.  Simien must be a fan as well, because right around this point we get shots that break out of the straightforward direction and become something more evocative.  My favorite is a bedroom conversation between Troy (Brandon Bell) and Coco (Teyonah Parris) where their intense physical attraction dissipates as their conversation moves on until they're no longer touching and their mouths are silhouettes against the white curtains in the background.  In barely a couple of minutes we get a full story of their brief relationship with beautiful photography and some painful admissions, like how Coco's real name, Colandrea, doesn't pass the resume test.

Dear White People is filled with moments which could stand as their own short films.  The saddest story from Lionel (Tyler James Williams) a shy college Freshman whose homosexuality is taken advantage of by his white boss.  Lionel is constantly framed as this young, black, gay prop whose usefulness is dependent entirely on what his boss can get from him.  The boss is just revealed to be one symptom of a larger problem as Lionel's hair is a "black hole for white hands", and in his rare moments free from his boss' manipulation his hair is a source of tactile pleasure for other white people.  What's reassuring about Lionel's story, and speaks volumes to Simien's writing, is that he's in this situation partly because he doesn't feel like he can be himself around those supposedly inclusive folks around him.  He has to whisper his frustration about gay rights during the fight between Kurt and Sam, and is rudely dismissed by Troy when they become roommates.  No one is a saint in Dear White People, but the way people come to accept and support Lionel shows they can learn to be better.

Tyler James Williams, who gives Lionel a painful shyness, is a standout in an already excellent cast.

Tyler James Williams, who gives Lionel a painful shyness, is a standout in an already excellent cast.

With all the potent drama on display I was hoping that Simien's film would be backed up by an equal dose of comedy.  I'm sad to report I didn't laugh at much of Dear White People.  Some of the humor really was mean-spirited, like the diatribe Sam leads some students on against Tyler Perry movies, or stylistically interesting if not exactly funny, like the sequence where Lionel reads a book with a tipping quiz and imagines completely different versions of himself giving answers.  Simien does have a talent for spicing up his writing with a harshly funny observation now and again, like how Sam is, "...like Spike Lee and Oprah had a pissed off baby."

But satire doesn't have to be funny, and Dear White People is 100% successful as a satire before it tries to make us laugh.  It's also the kind of movie I need to watch again a few months down the road.  Simien guided me to a place where I needed to interrogate my perspective on film and culture because I need more films like Dear White People to shake off my complacency.

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Tail - Dear White PeopleDear White People (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Justin Simien.
Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Dennis Haysbert, and Kyle Gallner.

Posted by Andrew

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