My top pick this week is an exciting debut feature that has found many fans since its Sundance debut in January. Curiously titled "Dear White People", Justin Simien's film is boldly up-front about its intentions. For those who are slow on the uptake, the tagline spells it out for you, reading "A satire about being a black face in a white place".
The setting for this satire is a fictional Ivy League college called Winchester University. Winchester is a predominantly white institution, with a small but vocal population of black students. The loudest of them is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), the host of a radio show called "Dear White People" and the new president of the campus' all-Black residential hall Parker-Armstrong. When she's not drawing attention to racial insensitivity through her show, she's rallying support to prevent the marginalization of black culture that will come when her residence becomes homogenized like the others. As she and other characters come to terms with their racially-based pressures and biases, an upcoming black-themed party threatens to cause unrest within the student body.
As someone who experienced a similar college situation in the US - I doubt we even had enough black students to fill a residential hall - "Dear White People" immediately rang true to me. Like Lionel Higgens (played by Tyler James Williams) in the poster, I had a white best friend/roommate who was fascinated by my hair, likening it to Velcro. To make matters worse, I was a foreign student. So I also received the obligatory "Do you have roads/electricity/internet where you're from?" Most of us black/international students just shrugged off these comments (they often came from a place of genuine curiosity). We didn't have a Samantha White to publicly call out the ignorance. Heck, even some of the black American students could have used some education on the African diaspora.
What's great about Simien's script then, is how it accurately captured that diversity among the black students. It's no coincidence that Issa Rae (star and creator of the YouTube sensation "Awkward Black Girl") has a brief cameo in the film. Simien and Rae are artists who are cut from the same cloth, featuring black characters in their work who are generally underrepresented in mainstream media - the awkward, quirky types. As such, one of the film's most interesting black characters is Lionel, who struggles to fit in anywhere by virtue of being gay and not relating to black culture. Though the film's title explicitly addresses white people, it also calls attention to the pressures that black people place on ourselves.
In addition to Lionel, the 3 other main characters struggle with expectations of blackness. Namely, there's Samantha (who overcompensates for the shame of being only "half-black"), Coco (who hides her less fortunate background by feigning affluence) and Troy (who's afraid to show any weakness as the model black man). Altogether they present positive images of black people as smart and complex and crucially, imperfect. In this regard, the script is refreshingly free of religion (Christianity being the default of course).
In a sly reversal of the norm, the white characters are much more one-dimensional. They are mostly resigned to expressing a bogus belief that racism no longer exists. As can be expected, it results in many humorous confrontations, especially with each role being so perfectly cast and performed. What's even more impressive is how introspective the film is. It goes further than satire, giving us a universal story about the pressures (relationships, parental expectations, personal ambition, social acceptance) that young minds face in a college environment.
Apart from the film's satirical merits, its craft elements are also deserving of praise. I love the warm amber hues of the cinematography and the way the camera changes angles to key you in to the shifting perspectives and the power dynamics between the characters. I love the score, which accentuates the tone without ever overpowering the scene. I love the bright intertitles that maintain the film's playfulness. Finally, I also love the character-specific details in the hairstyling and costume design. The latter especially, for how it rejects some of the outdated stereotypes (XXL t-shirts, FUBU etc.) as expressed in the film's pivotal scandal.
"Dear White People" announces Justin Simien as a fresh voice that we need in contemporary cinema. This is a film that's quirky, funny, sexy and oh so cool. I look forward to seeing what he'll do next. Until then, I'm sure I'll be revisiting this one.