‘Dear White People’ is an ambitious, glorious mess

posterDear White People
Written & Directed by Justin Simien
USA, 2014

 

Sometimes we need a little anarchy to liven things up.  First-time filmmaker, Justin Simien, isn’t interested in lighting any candles with his debut effort, Dear White People.  He’s here to curse the darkness… and then criticize the darkness for acting too dark.  This shotgun blast of a movie sprays indiscriminate venom on every racially-charged target in its path.  The sharp-tongued script eventually bogs down beneath its own ambition, but the brilliant satire far outweighs its narrative girth.  It’s also one of the funniest, most observant comedies of the year.

It’s no coincidence that Robert Altman gets name-checked in Dear White People, as his fingerprints are smeared all over this multi-character affair.  In fact, the entire premise, which tracks the last volatile weeks leading up to a “race riot” on a prestigious college campus, is little more than an excuse to introduce and deconstruct a litany of gloriously-flawed characters.  Each is wonderful at illuminating the hypocrisy of others, but lack similar insight when it comes to their own duplicity.  They’re smart, literate and have no allusions about how the world really works.  How they choose to deal with the world is what fuels four synchronous storylines that intersect in surprising, hilarious and sometimes disappointing ways.

You can hear the inspiration of Elmer Bernstein’s ornate, “Faber College Theme,” as we pan over the idyllic Winchester College campus.  But there is turmoil brewing.  The President’s recently enacted ‘Randomization of Housing Act’ will effectively disband the all-black Armstrong Parker house on campus.  To make matters worse, the college’s satirical newspaper is planning a racially-charged theme party for Halloween.  Opportunistic rabble-rouser, Sam (Tessa Thompson), seizes this chance to muster her political backers for some old fashioned civil disobedience.  Opposing her is the upwardly-mobile Troy (Brandon P Bell), who always knows just how black he’s supposed to act, and whose dad (Dennis Haysbert) just happens to be the Dean.  Planting himself firmly in the middle is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an aspiring journalist who’s been kicked out of every fraternity on campus; not for his race but for his sexual orientation.  The fourth interloper is Coco (Teyonah Parris), who’s determined to mine this situation into fame and fortune on reality television.

cast

Each character gives Simien plenty of fodder for satire.  Sam, for instance, is a mixed-race super achiever with a keen analytical eye.  An eye that begins at the end of her nose, apparently, as her strident racial identity seems at odds with her lily-white boyfriend (Justin Dobies) and her beloved father, whom she derisively refers to as, Papa White.  The jokes come fast and furious, but never at the expense of these characters.  Simien manipulates their flaws and foibles like a surgeon wielding a scalpel, making just the right cuts without judging or patronizing them.  Because he bases the humor on character instead of gags, Simien never runs out of targets for his caustic wit, and it’s remarkable how frequently he hits the bull’s-eye.

Simien repeatedly raises a bony finger to a complacent populace (both black and white) that considers racism a thing of the past.  No one is safe from the barrage, which keeps things from ever becoming sanctimonious.  The political humor, though consistently sophisticated, never forgets to bring the funny.  There’s more than a hint of Chayefsky’s playful anarchism lurking in the shadows.  As Sam and her boyfriend exchange heated points in a verbose political argument, you almost expect someone to fire a gun into the ceiling and proclaim, “Man, give her the fucking overhead clause!”  When Simien sticks to this anything-goes formula, Dear White People crackles with energy and appears poised to join the ranks of all-time great satires.

Unfortunately, the relationship dynamics aren’t nearly as sharp as the jokes.  At the midway point, it almost feels like Simien switches gears and tries to tell a ‘proper’ story.  Were there only one storyline, this strategy might have lifted Dear White People to masterpiece level.  With four concurrent storylines, however, it only serves to slow things down and curtail the satirical momentum.  Multiple targets work great for comedy; not so much for nuanced storytelling.  Some worn-out drama tropes are deployed to plug the gaps, along with some inconsistent character behavior to tie the four storylines together.

coco

Of course, none of these structural miscues are enough to undo the goodwill engendered by Simien and his cast in the film’s sensational first half.  Each actor delivers splendidly, with Teyonah Parris, in particular, delivering an outstanding performance.  Visually, Simien mainly stays out of the way and lets his words paint the picture.  When things become too static, he spices things up by changing the framing.  In several scenes containing longer dialogues, for instance, he places one character in the foreground while they address another character’s mirror image in the background.  It’s a subtle device that not only keeps things interesting, but also adds a layer of thematic heft to a movie concerned with racial identity.

Rather than delivering a unified statement on racial identity in “post-racial” America, Dear White People takes wild haymakers at every ideology.  Simien’s wide-ranging message is a reflection of this pivotal and confusing moment in time.  With athletic fields, pop charts and even the White House populated by prominent black figures, it’s important to recognize that popularity doesn’t ensure equality.  Perhaps more importantly, societal acceptance doesn’t ensure self-acceptance.  Regardless of whether Simien’s acidic viewpoint resonates with audiences, this is a vital piece of work that announces, quite clearly, the emergence of a gifted filmmaker.

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