At one point in Dear White People, a gay black student tells black classmates that his love for the films of Robert Altman, among other things, makes him feel ostracized from their various clubs on campus. For a film that is full of racial tensions and identity crises, it is this scene that sticks out the most, thanks to its relation to the film’s structure. Clearly writer/director Justin Simien is familiar with the late filmmaker, and with his debut film, he aims to reach the heights of Altman’s ensemble films (ex. Nashville, Short Cuts) but doesn’t have enough time to accomplish that particular goal. That said, having too much story is really the only fault against Dear White People, a movie that doesn’t let any of its stellar characters off the hook.
Its title is sure to cause some controversy, or at the very least discussion. “Dear White People” is the name of a radio program DJ’d by Samantha White (played by an amazing Tessa Thompson), an outspoken activist who frustrates faculty and students in equal fashion. Those who feel the brunt of her blows are Troy (Brandon P Bell), an ex-boyfriend, Coco (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris), a vlogger with celebrity ambitions, and Kurt (played to douchebag perfection by Kyle Gallner), editor of a Harvard Lampoon-esque paper. Each of these characters is dealing with something related to their race, sexuality, or social standing, whether they realize it or not.
Everyone gets their moment to shine, but none shine brighter than Thompson. Her aggressive behavior hides multiple secrets that could cost her good standing (albeit unfairly) in her on-campus black community, and Thompson’s handling of the character is totally believable. She escapes to her radio show to let out her rage, but what are the major causes of her ire? Sam’s relationships to everyone in the film are essential, and Thompson plays each one perfectly. That’s not to say that individually her castmates come off as unmemorable. Quite the contrary.
Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams shines in one of his first adult performances as the aforementioned gay student, Lionel. His interactions with a gay editor alternate between hopeful and disappointing as his love interest’s true colors begin to show. It’s an inspiring performance of a character whose confidence grows as the film progresses. Whereas Lionel is out and trying to find his place, Parris’ Coco is looked upon by her black classmates as someone who has sold out her race. She wears blue contacts, only dates white men, and is put off by Sam’s broadcast. Her story isn’t so easily defined, and one of her major moments during an inappropriately-themed party (but stick around during the credits for proof that this shit still goes on) is likely to stick with you.
Simien’s movie is broken up into segments with title cards and everything, a la Wes Anderson or even Quentin Tarantino. It doesn’t solely stick to the symmetrical stylings of Anderson, but has several scenes set up with characters staring straight into the camera. A student gets punched near the film’s conclusion, but that’s as close to Tarantino-esque violence that Dear White People embraces. Physical violence isn’t the point of the movie, and while the topic of race is its prevailing plot, it also forces us to look at our own hypocrisies. When we make our stands, what are we doing it for? Is it to make a grand statement? Is it to impress someone or make someone feel small? Is it possible for it to be all of these things?
It’s all food for thought, and one can’t help but think that Dear White People may have worked better as a miniseries, or even an hour longer like some of those Altman epics. Regardless of time constraints, Simien’s film reminds us that we do not live in a post-racial America, no matter what characters like Kurt say. His clumsy declaration that being an educated white man is tougher nowadays than it is to be black would be funny … if it wasn’t something we hear on certain news stations, as well as read in certain online publications and message boards. Good films create buzz, but movies like Dear White People create conversations.