Dear White People.
Isn’t that a great title? Confrontational, interesting, and pointed. When you consider writer/director Justin Simien‘s satirical ambitions with his feature debut, you can’t do much better than that. Already I’m hearing echoes of J. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, one of history’s most famous examples of funny, witty, and politically charged satire. And Dear White People pushes that angle heavily in its opening scenes, with inter-titles and shots of Winchester University’s (overwhelmingly white) student populace that resemble the worst admissions brochures.
And let me start by saying that this movie is funny, smart, and unique. I am ecstatic that it was made and that I got the chance to see it; it’s thought-provoking and challenging, the type of movie that needs to get made to push cinema into a medium that includes all kinds of voices and experiences, rather than exclusively telling stories about the majority. Also, I don’t see comedies that much anymore, but this is the most recent one I can recall that really had me laughing out loud and enjoying the characters. It’s a truly biting satire, an engaging one, and its ability to turn the camera back on its audience (literally, through the main character’s camcorder that she repeatedly holds up to the screen) is an important step in pushing those watching to really consider what is being said and its implications.
Anyway, Dear White People is largely satisfied with the overt, caricature-esque version of satire that is omnipresent in the first half of the film. I was satisfied too; I felt like I was being challenged to think about my role in these issues, even as a person who likes to tell himself that he’s oh-so-progressive. There is a lot of nuance in the movie, in particular with the character Lionel (played magnificently by Tyler James Williams, who has some of the best comedic timing I’ve seen in recent years), a nerdy guy who is black and gay, and thus an outsider to pretty much all of his peers. However, there is, as I mentioned, that taste of exaggerated satire; the most heavily focused on character, Sam White (Tessa Thompson, who is also very funny and adds a lot of nuance to the role), is frequently a mouthpiece for progressive views on race in modern America. Oftentimes, the script seems to go out of its way to give her a small pedestal in order to make a point.
And really, I was totally okay with that. None of this movie is fabricated; I can see all of the subtle and overt racist statements and events occurring—hell, I saw some of it happen at the university I went to—but the brilliance of the satire is that it puts all of the micro-aggressions, all of the faux-intellectual remarks (one reminds me of the famous, “It’s racist that there’s a BET but no WET!”), all of the moronic administrators, and everything else in one place. If I couldn’t piece together that much of this was hyperbole (not fiction, and maybe not even exaggerated, but wide-reaching in scope), then I was constantly being reminded of this fact by Simien’s inability to put his knowledge of cinematography to the side for one shot.
But then, halfway through this movie, there is a sharp shift in the tone and style. Suddenly, after a five minute period of several stresses—bordering on contrived—for Sam (“Oh, the Dean is approaching you and being a prick; also, the protest you were gonna lead is more confrontational than you want; oh, and here’s a phone call to let you know your dad is sick“), she completely shifts gears to an introspective and deeply conflicted character rather than a slightly conflicted but mostly political and outspoken one. I mean, an entire article could be written on the incredible complexity of her character, especially in the second half, and its implications about negotiating identity; a particularly interesting moment is when one character reveals that, “[her] favorite director is Bergman, but [she tells] people it’s Spike Lee.” On top of the change in characterization, the cinematography cools its jets (thankfully; I appreciate interesting framing, angles, and camera movements, but it gets distracting), and everything seems to take a sharp shift from a satire to a nuanced character study.
I didn’t know what to make of this when I first saw the movie. Upon first viewing, the transition felt very sudden, and distractingly unnatural. So many aspects of the movie suddenly felt like flaws. After all, if this isn’t a boldfaced satire, then is it really as acceptable to have mini-monologues that almost break the fourth wall in how much they are trying to make a point? To use a cinematic technique taught in film school for nearly every shot? To have those hilarious slow-mo shots of white people in polos playing frisbee with an overlay of that dorm’s name? I mean, all of these things were great, but they don’t really fit with the new atmosphere. It’s like watching a comedy and forgiving some of the lovably cheesy dialogue that is meant to be character development, but then having the movie suddenly switch to a serious drama, and then thinking back on how cheesy that dialogue really was.
In hindsight, I think that I might have been too harsh in my initial judgement of this change. Although I do think that the shift could have been more carefully built up to, there are characters who walk the line between satire and complicated human beings throughout. And moreover, the ability of the film to set our expectations and then abolish them, challenging our preconceptions of who these people are, is in no small part its point. There is a jarring tonal shift, but it does not completely disrupt the humor, and the character insights that we get as the movie progresses are far above par for the course—for satire, for comedy, and for most mainstream film. The second half works fantastically as a comedy that is also an insightful character study, one that imbues racial commentary into it seamlessly. The major success is that this movie, by the end, has made clear that it is not a movie about race, exclusively, but a movie about how race and identity are intertwined in modern America—and the inability of the privileged to realize that. The second half really brings these points to the forefront. I just don’t think that the second half fits as seamlessly with the overtly satirical elements as Simien might have hoped.
And really, considering this is a directorial debut, all of these flaws are totally understandable. Much like TV pilots, a writer/director’s first feature is usually a rougher, lower-quality vision of what is to come. Fortunately, like the Twin Peaks pilot, Dear White People is far above its ilk in terms of debuts, and while the script and camera work could have used some polishing and restraint, I can safely say that Simien’s first feature film is of higher quality than most comedies I see nowadays. Of course, I cannot speak enough to how favorably I view this movie’s statements about racial politics, particularly in white-dominated, self-described liberal pockets like colleges. The points made here are challenging, and the complexity of several characters—each reflecting different aspects of what it’s like, to quote the movie’s tagline, “being a black face in a white place”—reveals the extent to which there is a dearth of representation for black people in media. While the movie might have done well to cut out a main character or two, that would risk losing the myriad perspectives that this movie aims to give voice to.
But on top of the message and the inherent importance of a movie like this, it’s also funny, entertaining, and engaging. As much as I’ve spent several paragraphs critiquing Dear White People, I feel overwhelmingly positive about it. Because the movie is so good, the flaws are that much more frustrating. But if Dear White People is an example of what’s to come from Simien, and even from performers Williams and Thompson, then I can safely conclude that I am very, very excited.