Racial politics never quite gel in ‘Dear White People’
‘Dear White People’ is a scattershot satire on race in America that is as confused about its subject matter as its characters are. The movie raises some questions but isn’t pointed enough to answer them or confident enough to take a strong stance on them.
What it might do is spark a conversation, and that’s a good start. First-time filmmaker Justin Simien sets his story at fictional Winchester University, an Ivy League-like school where issues of race, gender, sexuality and privilege are bubbling just below the surface and are threatening to boil over.
The story centers on Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who uses her campus radio show, “Dear White People,” to deliver missives on race (“dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two”) to the student body. This is the movie’s first problem: Can White possibly have enough quips to fill up an entire show? And in 2014, wouldn’t a @dearwhitepeople Twitter feed be more effective?
White — her name is about as subtle as the movie — gains a position in student government, where she unseats Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the school’s dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Haysbert’s character is a lifelong rival of the school’s president, whose petulant son Kurt (Kyle Gallner) is the driving force behind a borderline blackface “hip-hop” party aimed at the student body’s white population. This is where the movie comes to a head, though it never catches fire.
Simien draws strong performances from his talented cast and has a clean visual sensibility. But he’s still sifting through the issues he raises and the movie suffers from his lack of conviction. Hopefully, he’ll use “Dear White People” as a springboard to something better.
‘Dear White People’
Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use