Four black students are enrolled at a prestigious Ivy League college when a riot breaks out over a popular 'African American' themed party thrown by white students.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: An ultra-modern comedy of manners set in a made-up branch of America’s Ivy League, Dear White People was one of the most vibrant, engaging debuts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Writer and director Justin Simien has made a talking piece film on a subject so wily that it has preoccupied a nation for decades yet rarely feels discussed with any depth or candour. That is the subject of race relations in America, specifically relations between the country’s white and black populations. Post-Obama, that nexus finds new confusions mixed in with stubborn old bigotry.
one of the most vibrant, engaging debuts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival
In Dear White People, the elite education system is a pressure point for those confusions. Set on the fictional campus of Winchester University, the film follows various black characters as they negotiate an environment where their minority is more pronounced (they make up only two percent of the student body, whereas 13.5 percent of America’s general population is black) and the privilege of their white counterparts is even more exaggerated. If you are not yourself a product of this environment (which I am not), the film’s specificities (much time is spent on dormitory house politics and jockeying for student leadership positions) might prove alien. Simien, who developed Dear White People for upwards of a decade, attended such a school, and more often his intimacy with the film’s chosen context pays off.
Sam (Tessa Thompson) has styled herself as the campus radical, and found a following with her radio show, where she issues 'Dear White People"¦" commandments ('"¦please stop dancing"; '"¦the quota of black friends you must have in order to not appear racist has been raised to two") to a delighted audience. Seeking a similar level but very different quality of attention is Coco (Teyonah Parris), who wears blue contacts, seeks a white boyfriend, and longs for the kind of instant fame only reality television can grant. Simiens gets in plenty of quick hits about the inversions that flourish in a supposedly 'post-racial" environment (where, for instance, having a black boyfriend becomes a kind of status symbol, and white people persist in their clumsy handling of black idiom), but the most intriguing exchanges tend to happen between the black characters, who prove unsure among themselves about things like maintaining an all-black dormitory.
Amid some dramatic incoherence, Simien grants each of his characters at least one moment that feels both new and genuinely revealing. Along with Coco, campus hero Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is one of the more thinly drawn characters; his fancy white girlfriend is meant to represent the many betrayals this son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert) must commit to get ahead. Troy grows more interesting in relation to his suite-mate Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay freshman with a formidable afro looking to avoid both racial politics and the douchebags ruling his fraternity. Lionel and Sam form the gravitational heart of Dear White People, which is at its freshest when Simien puts the dilemmas of its characters before admittedly snappy dialogue.
The influence of Spike Lee is inscribed in Simien’s rhythmic, energetic style: the low angles, confrontational individual and group shots, and even the costuming are especially reminiscent of Do the Right Thing. The climax of the film, set at the kind of 'dress like a black person" party held at a predominantly white American college as recently as last week, also recalls Lee’s breakout film, though here the pitch is set lower, and the tensions never quite release. An apt choice, perhaps, for a film about racial issues that persist not at full boil but a constant, insidious simmer.