REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
Is every film comedy, which takes place on a college campus, necessarily an exercise in vapidity? The highly literate and conceptually provocative satire, “Dear White People” constitutes proof positive that it need not be.
“Dear White People” is set at Winchester University, a fictitious institution, which here is defined as part of the Ivy League. It shares its title with the name of a radio show, which is broadcast on the campus radio station by a biracial coed, Sam White (Tessa Thompson).
The film suggests that Sam is forced to choose a side — is she black or white? Sam is consumed with a gnawing fear that she is not sufficiently Afrocentric. As a consequence, Sam feels compelled to assert a strong black identity. She is a font of embittered on-air commentary. At one juncture, she archly observes, “Dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”
Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is the handsome, polished African-American undergraduate. He happens to be the son of the Winchester University’s Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert). Seemingly oblivious to Troy’s inclinations, Dad has carefully mapped out his son’s future. It will consist of law school, followed by a career in electoral politics.
Dating back to their student days, Dean Fairbanks is locked in a decades-long battle with Winchester University’s President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen). This long-simmering conflict takes on a generational twist. Troy has jettisoned Sam as a girlfriend and is now dating Sofia (Brittany Curran), the white daughter of school’s president. Further complicating the dynamics are the antics of President Hutchinson’s son, Kurt (Kyle Gallner). Spouting the neo-conservative rhetoric of entitlement, he heads a campus humor magazine and an all-white fraternity.
Sam runs against her former beau, Troy, who is the incumbent student head of the historically black residence hall, Armstrong Parker House. Her platform offers a symbolic protest against President Hutchinson’s recent implementation of a Housing Randomization Policy. Administration officials contend that this is conducive to the deconstruction of racial barriers. However, Sam insists that the policy actually threatens the existence of one of the campus’ only venues, where blacks dominate. In an outcome, which surprises everyone, even Sam, she dethrones Troy.
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams from “Everybody Hates Chris”) is a bookish nerd, who is totally ostracized and friendless. He sports an enormous vintage Afro, but eschews any interest in black culture. Pointedly, Lionel doesn’t even join the Black Student Union. Adding to his woes, Lionel is gay and has to constantly battle homophobia. Unable to fit in, Lionel is bounced from one residence hall to another. The film seemingly posits an Ivy League campus, where homophobia is overtly expressed with virtual impunity. It seems as if Lionel is the school’s only out homosexual and there is no gay support organization.
Rounding out the quartet of well-drawn characters is Coco Conners (Teyonah Paris from “Mad Men”). She hails from the South Side of Chicago, rather than a privileged class background. Coco is consumed with jealousy at all the attention that Sam is gleaning. In response, she launches her own podcast, which espouses a far more socio-politically conservative agenda. Coco also approaches the producer of a reality television show, who is trolling the campus, looking for telegenic participants.
These swirling tensions culminate with a party, thrown by Kurt’s all-white frat. It has the controversial theme of, “Be your inner black.” It invites students to show up in blackface and costumes, which lampoon their most offensive stereotypes of African Americans. Lest you think that this is a far-fetched premise, captioning over end credits delineate the numerous colleges where such black theme parties have actually taken place.
Writer/director, Justin Simien, makes an extremely auspicious debut. He eschews the simplistic notion of a single, hegemonic black cultural identity. As the film is quick to point out, not every African-American is necessarily a fan of Madea’s machinations in the Tyler Perry franchise. Instead, Simien submits a nuanced perspective on the individual struggle for black identity in an era, which some ludicrously proclaim to be “post-racial.” Dear White People” also adroitly exposes the hypocrisies of a university administration, intent upon suppressing controversy at all costs in a shameless effort to maximize alumni contributions.
There is a temptation to compare Simien to a young, up and coming Spike Lee, fresh off of his “School Daze” acclaim. However, like his Sam White screen character, Simien is more a fan of Ingmar Bergman that he is of Lee’s.
Replete with a notably strong ensemble cast, “Dear White People” provides an insightful and eminently entertaining lampoon of identity politics.
“Dear White People” *** R (for language, sexual content and drug use) 112 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.