Dear White People, Justin Simien's thrillingly sharp-witted comedy of race and identity in the US, is about a group of collegiate characters, black and white, who are living out what seems at first to be a dream of integration and equality. The movie is set at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League campus whose upper-middle-class students glide through a preppy world of money and power. At Winchester, the black and white kids hang out together, provoking and razzing each other, and they fall into bed without anyone making a big deal of it. The white students, who have absorbed decades of black pop culture – hip-hop, the mediocre yet vitally important Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America, the edgier-than-thou slang – connect with the black students in verbally precocious ways that may seem a little self-satisfied, but that convey a great deal more understanding than their counterparts possessed a generation ago.
Yet the result of all this enlightened black/white exchange isn't harmony. It’s a racial roller-coaster in which the conflicts, rivalries and cultural differences are now elevated to a form of power politics. Everyone in the movie is working to outdo everyone else: to be more honestly black or more hipsterishly white, more proudly assimilated or more proudly separate. They're all wearing complicated masks of ‘authenticity’. Welcome to the head-spinning gamesmanship of the Obama era – and to the most elegantly candid comedy of racial tension since Spike Lee burst onto the scene 30 years ago.
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This is Simien's first feature, and his writing dazzles you with its casual insolence. The dialogue in Dear White People is a nonstop parade of barbed epigrams, cuttingly literate social observations and lines that zing with brutal hilarity. Simien takes what might have seemed like the observations of a great stand-up comedian and sprinkles them throughout his ensemble of brash college types. Only rarely do they sound like mouthpieces – and when they do, you're having too much fun to mind.
Every character is a walking contradiction, and that's what makes them fascinating. The film keeps encouraging you to pigeonhole them, and the more you try, the more you realise how their personalities wriggle free of stereotype. Take Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a beautiful, acid-tongued media-arts major who hosts a radio show in which she gently harangues her listeners about prejudices they didn't know they had. "Dear white people," one of her scathing editorials begins, "the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed dealer, Tyrone, doesn't count." That's a snarky gem – but is it satirising white poseurs who 'collect' black friends, or is it satirising the pious peer pressure that encourages them to do so? Maybe both. Sam, a self-proclaimed militant, has a mission to bring everyone within earshot round to the notion that Obama's America is not a 'post-racial' landscape but, rather, a place brimming with veiled new forms of hatred and oppression. The movie shows sympathy with Sam’s view, but it doesn't let her off the hook for her didactic style; it recognises that she's an activist who may be less pure in her radicalism than she thinks.
Sam, eager to find an outlet for her disputatious style, runs for president of the all-black residence hall Armstrong-Parker House, going up against her old flame, the handsome, glad-handing Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell). When Sam wins in an upset, fighting for the right to keep the house exclusively black, her fire-breathing spirit begins to heat up the campus. A dining-hall face-off between her and Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the editor of the college humour magazine Pastiche, who parades his white-boy privilege by portraying himself as a victim of reverse racism, is an exhilarating sequence of verbal gladiatorial combat. Yet part of the moral complexity of Dear White People is how much sympathy it shows not just for the righteous Sam but for the desperate-to-be-assimilated Troy or for Coco Conners, an unapologetic social climber from a poor background. With her posh weave and upscale vocabulary, Coco wants to be just like the rich white kids – and when accused of that very thing, she asks, in essence: don't I have the right to? Coco, played with scene-stealing ferocity by Teyonah Parris, is a wannabe so honest about her intentions that she turns snobbish social ambition into something almost admirable. It's no wonder that a reality-TV producer (Malcolm Barrett) keeps hanging around on the sidelines, trying to create an incendiary series about life among the mixed-race student body of Winchester. He grasps that even their most direct expressions of their selves are a kind of theatre. The one character who’s simply trying to be himself – pensive, quietly gay Lionel (Tyler James Williams) – is treated by everyone else as if he were a creature from Mars.
Dear White People is framed by an incendiary event: a black-face gangsta party, organised as a 'satirical' fraternity bash by the editors of Pastiche, who invite students to come and liberate their “inner Negro”. When the black characters we've been following crash the party and turn it into a riot, it's clearly an homage to the climax of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Simien, like Lee, wants to bust open the piñata of prejudice and take a look at what's inside. But Lee, in his ferocious early films, was often the finger-pointing director as protester; you always knew where he stood. The beauty of Dear White People is that Simien has raised the game. His attitudes are so slyly complex that you can't nail them down. They keep fighting each other for dominance. Dear White People beautifully satirises the superficially progressive yet stifling PC style that’s come to dominate US college life in the swirling racial stewpot of the 21st Century. It portrays the goings on at Winchester as a microcosm of the Obama era, in which haughty postures too often pass as enlightened. These characters show that you can be too busy trying to do the right thing to actually do it.