Thursday, February 12, 2015

Dear White People: Movie Review


Has something to say with intriguing characters.
Dear White People has been described as a satire, but a satire of what exactly is not entirely clear. It's a comedy but with humour that's hard to find. It's a simple story of college life but with more 'he's sleeping with her and she's sleeping with him but he's sleeping with him' than most of us would like. The narrative doesn't flow smoothly, but it's also clever, curious and very compelling. A racial comedy that is funny and also very disarming. Year

Directed by: Justin Simien

Screenplay by: Justin Simien

Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Brandon P. Bell and Kyle Gallner

The movie starts with Samantha (Tessa Thompson), a biracial activist who hosts her own radio show titled "Dear White People" which includes such biting remarks as “It's official white people, you now need at least two black friends in order to not be racist.” She's convinced that the issues plaguing black people on the campus of the fictional Ivy League Winchester University are not the same as it is for white people and calls for her fellow black students to elect her as head of the African American house on campus. She's competing against Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) who is African American, is the son of the Dean of Students, is dating Sofia (who's white and the daughter of the university President), is universally loved and wants to be a writer of the school's humour mag which is run by a group of white students. They are as different as white and black, but are both black. And both provide an interesting viewpoint into the different characters' perceptions of race issues on campus.

Tyler James Williams. Courtesy of eOne Films.
Our best character, also our lead character, was just as brilliantly created. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is an African American with a huge afro. For as outgoing as he looks, he is completely unassuming. He was bullied in high school, rejected by every social (and racial) group on campus, is smart and is gay. He just wants to figure out how to fit in and his confidence and belief in his writing skills should be the ticket.

The early altercation is when popular, elitist and white student Kurt (Kyle Gallner) gets kicked out of the cafeteria of the African American house after delivering a rant on how easy African Americans have it in the name of affirmative action. Not surprisingly, his fellow black students don't take kindly to his thoughts. But after Kurt and his white friends, who run the school's humour mag, are kicked out of the cafeteria, Lionel is too. Because he just doesn't fit in anywhere. However he can use this incident to try to get a writing gig with the university's newspaper.

What all of this is supposed to lead to is a Halloween party run by the humour mag's white students where they embrace their “inner Negro”. However, it takes an awful long time to get to the interesting scenes and even longer to get to the party. The film uses title cards to give us an idea of when we are at supposed important points, but everything seems to be strung together with who is sleeping with whom. Most of our main characters have two sexual partners, one of each race. If Asian and other ethnic groups were involved in the racial issues on campus, then our main characters would probably be sleeping with them too.

Most of our main characters were brilliantly created – just look at the Samantha vs. Troy election for two people with very complex characteristics driving their actions and choices. Lionel and Kurt as well have completely different university experiences and are completely different from one another and yet have been grouped together on multiple occasions. Those characters are by far the most interesting but we also have to follow an assimilated black student desperate to get into a reality show, and all of the people that our main characters are sleeping with.

For anybody looking for where the next great African American actors will come from, this film is a great place to start. Tyler James Williams gave Lionel such an intriguing but quiet presence that you wanted to follow him especially when he blends into the background with such a loud look. It's very different from his previous TV sitcom appearances. Two Veronica Mars alums, Tessa Thompson and Kyle Gallner, make strong cases for an eclectic film career. Gallner's played evil before, but here he's absolutely hilarious as a loud and privileged white asshole.

The structure and narrative flow of Dear White People is a bit of a setback especially since it's not as funny as expected, but it has a lot to say about racial issues in America today, and even if you can't figure out what the main point is, you still appreciate that it has something to say.