Review: ‘Dear White People’ makes you laugh at things that make you furious
Does choosing the Syfy network over ESPN mean you’re too white? If you like Robert Altman’s films more than Tyler Perry’s, are you not black enough?
These are the sorts of probing questions peppered throughout “Dear White People,” first-time feature director Justin Simien’s often hysterical look at the otherwise not-so-funny state of race relations in America.
Set on the campus of a fictional Ivy League school, a handful of black students must navigate Winchester University’s institutionalized racism and its new, yet equally misguided notions about equality (racism is a thing of the past, according to the school president).
It’s in this unwittingly hostile environment, where white students just can’t seem to stop touching black students’ hair, that the coeds must also deal with their own identity crises as minorities and young people.
Colandrea (Teyonah Parris of “Mad Men”) wears her hair in a silky straight weave and calls herself Coco because her given name sounds too “ghetto.” The gay and socially awkward Lionel (played wonderfully by the wry Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris”) ping pongs between black and white student housing because one dorm can’t accept his sexuality and the other his color. The Vermont-bred Mitch (Keith Myers) talks like Tupac but looks more like a member of Mumford & Sons.
It’s no wonder that black activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) hits a nerve with the pointed advice she dispenses to fellow students on her radio show, “Dear White People.”
“Dear white people,” she says, “the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”
Sam also points out that just because we have a black president, racism has not been eradicated. Even if Obama cured cancer, she says, white people would still be enraged with him. “And he’s only half black.”
But it’s when she decides to run for a school office that tensions in and between the various camps begin to rise.
Touching on just about every polarizing issue possible, “Dear White People” flippantly tosses around otherwise loaded observations and painful truths in rapid-fire succession, using pop-culture references as its ammo. When Lionel is asked by his white editor at the school paper why he’s working on a Saturday night, he says, “It’s either here or the new Madea movie.”
When Sam, a self-proclaimed bebop fan is outed for having Taylor Swift on a hidden playlist in her computer, she mutters, “And I was so careful.”
The story lines here get a little tangled thanks to the dueling agendas of its multiple characters. One’s trying to fit in while another’s calling for a revolution and still another would rather remain entirely invisible. Their stories crisscross in a maze riddled with incredibly stupid and super advanced ideas on identity and race. Things naturally become convoluted, and maybe that’s the point.
Still, the complicated narratives don’t distract from what this film does best: make you laugh about the things that make you furious.
Is “Dear White People” a major game changer? No. But by addressing tough issues with biting humor, pop-culture savvy and snarky skepticism, it makes our messy national conversation about race and equality feel a bit more manageable.
It’s no accident that the film’s most hapless and humorous character, not its most strident, is the one who ends up moving the needle.
Tensions culminate when the black student union crashes a “hip-hop” party by white students. The house is full of revelers in blackface, eating watermelon and filling their cups from a “Purple Drank” fountain.
If the party seems a bit far-fetched, and it does at points, Simien (who also wrote the screenplay) reminds us during the credits that scenes like this are not just the stuff of movies.
He rolls out snapshots (presumably from Facebook posts) of actual students from college campuses posing in blackface and afro wigs. It’s a sobering reminder that we’ve stepped out of the satirical campus of Winchester and back into the real world where none of this stuff is funny.
Follow me on Twitter: @LorraineAli
‘Dear White People’
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content and drug use.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Crenshaw Plaza 15, Baldwin Hills; AMC Century City 15
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