DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
*** (out of ****)
On the campus of a fictional Ivy league school, four black characters lead very different lives, despite the fact that all of them are black. Sam hosts a radio show called “Dear White People”, where she teaches white people how to live in a world with all these crazy colored folk. Troy is a superstar who is on the fast track for success. Lionel is a confused writer with a giant fro that white chicks love putting their hands in. CoCo is a future superstar of a different type than Troy…one that has her sights set on being a future Real Housewife of whatever city she lands in. Although none of the four characters are particularly close to each other, their lives cross paths a few times in the five weeks leading up to a black themed frat party. You may have heard about these: white kids give themselves black face and wave toy guns in the air. It looks like a room full of James Francos from Spring Breakers, if they all tripped and face planted in the mud on the way to the party.
The party serves as a third act, and it feels like it’s there because movies need third acts. Without the party, the movie would just be a bunch of people standing around and talking their bullshit opinions. What’s astonishing, particularly from a first time writer and director, is that the story becomes the boring part, getting in the way of what the movie does so well. Dear White People seamlessly weaving soapboxy feelings, opinions, and editorials into well-rounded characters who have real discussions about important issues. It’s not just hard, it may not have been done by anyone since Spike Lee in the late eighties.
SHIT! I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to be the first person on the internet to write something about Dear White People and not bring up Spike Lee. For those of you who only know Spike Lee as a guy who needs Kickstarter to make crappy movies, or directs inexplicable remakes of Chan-wook Park movies, please direct your attention to the years 1986-1988, where Lee turned himself into a powerhouse with She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing.
It’s easy to compare Lee and Justin Simien, the writer/director of Dear White People. They are both black filmmakers who make films about the current black experience. But the similarities run so much deeper than that. I don’t mean to take anything away from Simien with the comparison, or say that his “original voice” has been around for almost 30 years now. Instead, I’m trying to say that this will be a voice to be reckoned with, and I have precedence to back that up. Both Do the Right Thing and Dear White People make the earth-shattering claim that not all black people are the same. In fact, they all think different things and act in different ways. Both movies use simple yet effective characterizations to turn diatribes into fleshed out conversations. And both movies refuse to offer an easy answer. The death of a radio-toting youth is much more serious than a tasteless party theme, but they both allow their directors a way to show their audience that there are more perspectives than whatever bullshit one you currently have. Things are more complex than the rantings of a Fox News Correspondent. Dear White People, while dabbling occasionally in social satire and broad comedy, at no point attempts to show us exaggerated extremes in order to slam its point home. It’s so easy to broadcast your simple points to an audience you’re nervous won’t understand, as if you’re making the movie version of an internet meme. Dear White People isn’t just the debut of Justin Simien, but is him kicking down our doors, dick in one hand and a machine gun in the other, and then gently setting them to the side and telling us he’s not going to need these to get his point across. Dear White People doesn’t bat a thousand, and what didn’t work for me might totally work for you. But the sure hand and amount of thought that goes into each point made, into each quiet conversation, into each interestingly shot scene, makes it definitely worth it.
– Ryan Haley