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Monday, October 13, 2014

Is DEAR WHITE PEOPLE More of a Movement Than a Film?

At the core of every great college film is its exploration of identity at an age when many of us are still trying to find a place in the world, when we are still struggling to discover who we are and who we want to be. In that sense, filmmaker Justin Simien's DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is no different. But the dramedy goes beyond the default teenage-early 20s existential dilemmas to introduce a new topic to the discussion that examines the question, What do you do when you're 20 years old and Black on a predominantly white campus?

It's a question that can move beyond the campus to the office or any other organization in which there is a clear minority, in which your race is seen first followed by your character. That's what makes DEAR WHITE PEOPLE so important is that it calls out the significant nuances that a particular set of people (in this case, Blacks) have to deal with when enveloped by a room filled with white people -- whether it be hair, skin tone or social differences. By setting the story on a college campus, it gives a voice to characters like Dee from Clueless, Charles from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jodi from Daria and Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds, who are faced with a unique set of challenges that are less about they're being minorities and more about intersectionality within the black culture and their struggle to be seen as something more than just a trending topic or object of satire.

But as great as the message is, and as hilarious as it is at times, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE struggles as a full-length film. While it is refreshing to see Simien tackle such subjects on the big screen as sexuality, closeted nerdom, and the power of conflict, the characters could have used a lot more fleshing out. As a result, they lack dimensions and are short changed. For instance, the always excellent Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls) and Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) play college students on separate yet equal sides of the minority spectrum. Lionel (Williams) is a Mumford and Sons listening, openly gay and openly nerdy young black man stuck living in an all-white and all-jerk frat house with an overwhelming number of idiots. A loner partly by choice and partly out of convenience, he's compelled to step out of his shell once tepidly treading the social in between on campus becomes impossible. Samantha (Thompson) is a radio deejay who many would call a rebel rouser, someone who will no longer stand for the status quo of social and racial injustices on campus, and has essentially become the face of the new rebellion (I really hate to use a Hunger Games reference here, but it applies). Unlike Lionel, her role on campus is distinct, even envied at times. But her appointed status, with all its prestige and notoriety, may also mean losing herself in the process. Both characters, while engaging, clearly represent very specific molds that we've seen before (though not in this context), but still manage to lack a connection with the audience because they are written as messages and not as people. Who are they beyond what they're supposed to represent?

The rest of the characters aren't drawn any differently in terms of their development. Simien's screenplay is spread quite thin, but most noticeably when it comes to the wide variety of characters he creates. Plus, the editing doesn't do it any favors. The film often shifts between scenes for no clear reason, which also makes it difficult to get truly invested in any of the smaller storylines. Specifically, Samantha has the potential to be more interesting had Simien made her character outside her "Dear White People" movement as significant as her popular cause. Luckily, in Thompson's capable hands, Samantha is more humanized, but she can only do so much given the script. Another good character in theory, Coco (Mad Men's Teyonah Parris in a solid performance), feels remote. Coco is a young woman who like everyone else is trying to find a way to stand out. So, as is often the case in this social media age, she creates an online identity that represents a countermovement to Samantha's "Dear White People," to elevate her social status. But we don't get to spend enough time with her to truly understand her. Why she does what she does, and what she learns by the end of the movie (if anything).

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE has a lot of great ideas, a wonderful cast with relatable and entertaining scenarios throughout, but I wonder whether what people will remember more -- the story or the messaging? Will it matter if one is weaker than the other?

Rating: B- (*** out of *****)

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is in theaters Friday.


Dankwa Brooks said...

Good review Candice. I agree with you about the story, but I really liked JUSTIN SIMIEN'S direction. I thought it was really good for a first time director. I thought TESSA THOMPSON was good, but TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS was the standout performance in this film. I hope this leads to higher profile roles for him.

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