VOD film review: Dear White People
Leslie Byron Pitt | On 06, Nov 2015
Director: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Dennis Haysbert
Watch Dear White People online in the UK: BFI Player / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
In a world where Facebook statuses still deliberating on how racist the MOBO awards are, unarmed Afro-Americans are being shot seemingly indiscriminately and the term “post-racial” is bandied about like a Twitter trend more than a theoretical environment, Dear White People’s release feels more relevant than ever.
Justin Simien’s prickly satire attempts to penetrate some of the roots of America’s racial identity with strong confidence and flair. Detailing the social struggles for four distinctive black students attending a mostly white Ivy League college, the film’s multi-stranded narrative clearly shows that this is a personal and detailed work, from gags in which ignorant white girls are allowed to pet the hair of homosexual geek Lionel (Tyler James Williams) or fetishise black masculinity because they think it makes them feel like bad girls to the all-too-disturbing veracity of the black-faced college party climax. (Simien’s final images of real incidents of white students, blacked up, gold chained and grinning as the credits roll only serves as a stunning reminder of how many minorities are still viewed in the eyes of a certain privileged majority.)
While Simien doesn’t wish to be considered the new Spike Lee, his film does appear to borrow much from him. Its setting and themes owe much to School Daze (1988). The film’s structure, right up to its chaotic finale, is reminiscent of Do the Right Thing (1989). Meanwhile, the insights into interracial relationships and the pitfalls that they constantly need be dodged, could easily lend a nod to the likes of Jungle Fever (1991). Simien’s film differs by controlling his scenes with less forcible aggression than Lee, although it’s clear that he is no less angry at the situation.
One seemingly throwaway quote labels one character as “technically black”. While buried amongst more egregious behaviour within the film, it’s one of the film’s most telling lines, instantly highlighting one of the more problematic, yet commonplace, issues of racial identity faced today – where black people are only considered as such if they fit the comfortingly over-elaborate, cartoony exaggerations witnessed in videos, television and music. Simien’s film constantly tries to have his protagonists step out and away from those narrowly drawn margins, which provides the film’s greatest strength: its heart.
Dear White People works best when Simien shifts the markers and plays with the well-known stereotypes. It’s not afraid to strike at race at any level, be it generational, sexual or even social background. The strength comes from not only its sources, but how well-drawn the dynamics are. The characters and situations often ring true on many levels, as does the isolation that each face once they step out of the lines.
As a satire, Dear White People isn’t as funny as expected, but much like Bamboozled (2000), it’s so clued up and concentrated on the absurdity of modern racial talking points that it sometimes forgets to remind us that we should be in on the absurdity as well.