Justin Simien’s Dear White People has made a big splash since hitting the festival circuit earlier this year. Even though racial polarization has been in the news, it’s not something that movies have had the nerve to touch.
In that sense, Dear White People is invaluable, giving voice to black frustrations with white assumptions and questions of privilege and victimhood. But writer/director Simien, making his feature debut, has such a heavy hand and static style that the message is blunted.
Set at a fictional Ivy League campus, the story revolves around the outrage sparked by a hip-hop-themed party thrown by a group of white students. Between the blackface and fake Afro wigs, the event turns into a powder keg.
Dealing with the situation in different ways are campus activist Sam (Tessa Thompson) and her white boyfriend Gabe (Justin Dobies); fame-hungry Coco (Teyonah Parris, Mad Men); conflicted gay student Lionel (Tyler James Williams) who’s not accepted by black or white students; ambitious and political Troy (Brandon P. Bell), whose dad (Dennis Haysbert) is a dean; and stubborn party-thrower Kurt (Kyle Gallner) whose dad is the school president.
Modulating between ensemble drama and comedy, Dear White People shifts often in tone, making it feel like two movies at times. The best moments — as in the fantasy satirical sequence where a group of black students question a befuddled box-office worker about black stereotypes in film — get to the heart of Simien’s thesis that what is supposed to be post-racial America isn’t all that much different from what came before.
But the variable acting, the padded story and the 100-minute running time work against it. Here’s hoping though that, now that Simien has thrown down the gauntlet, others won’t be afraid to pick it up.
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Dear White People
* * * (out of five)
Director: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson
Rated: R (strong language, sexual content, drug use)
Running time: 100 min.