Thursday, November 13, 2014

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (2014)

Written & Directed by Justin Simien


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 26, 2014 8:25PM


Way back in 1986, "She's Gotta Have It", a charming, low-budget comedy about an African-American woman not feeling compelled to settle with just one man, ushered in a fresh new voice in cinema; Spike Lee. Brash, incendiary and fearless, Lee created introspective films about the African-American experience while loudly criticizing the Hollywood establishment for continuing to ignore this audience. After one of the director's biggest critical and commercial triumph-to-date, the Oscar-nominated, "Do The Right Thing" in 1989, it was expected that many other film makers of color would be given opportunities to work in the industry. Sadly but not surprisingly, this has not really come to pass.

"Dear White People", the excellent first feature from another fresh voice, writer/director Justin Simien, takes a satirical look at the lives of black students at Winchester, a fictional, predominately white college. Far less volatile than Mr. Lee's work, Simien still deals with the complex subject of race and identity with thoughtful perspective, edgy humor and brutal honesty.

We meet some of the African-American students attending the university including Troy (Brandon P. Bell), bright, handsome and popular, is under extreme pressure to excel, no matter the cost. It doesn't help that his father happens to be the school's Dean (Dennis Haysbert) which means he must always be beyond reproach. Attempting to put some distance from a rough past, Colandrea (Teyonah Parris) reinvents herself as "Coco". With a long weave and pricey outfits to create the proper image, Coco uses her video blog in an attempt to express herself and generate much-desired attention. And we have freshman, Lionel (Tyler James Williams, best known as the lead in the sitcom, "Everybody Hates Chris") who is a true outsider. Gay, socially-inept and sporting an out-of-control afro, he doesn't seem to fit in with any group nor does anybody want to claim him either.

Then there's Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a bi-racial student, who takes a militant stand with the radio program she hosts called "Dear White People". While offering rhetorical advice to this group, Sam not only wants to make a point but also clearly provoke. She runs for Head of House of their all-black dorm on a lark and surprisingly defeats the perceived winner, Troy. This sets off a chain of events beginning with Sam, wielding her new power, kicking out some white students dining in their dorm during lunch. One of them is Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the obnoxious son of the school President. This doesn't sit well with him and vows retaliation. The tough-talking Sam is not all she appears to be, desperately trying to keep another part of her life on the down-low.

Being small fish in a big pond, the black students eventually turn on each other to gain or maintain whatever small amount of power they can achieve. When Coco fails to be properly noticed, she resorts to more desperate measures. This all leads to a campus party where the theme is African-American with white students arriving dressed in offensive, stereotypical depictions. Thanks to hip-hop and films, many of these young white kids seem to admire African-American culture but are clueless to the ugly history of such representations. Once the black students catch wind of this event, the already tense environment explodes in to raging violence.

It's difficult enough simply mentioning the subject, let alone mining actual humor regarding contemporary race relations however, Mr. Simien is game and manages with great success. The director doesn't hold back, making for some uncomfortably funny moments. And when the students drop their guard, revealing their fears and frustrations, the film is equally effective. The young, largely unknown cast is quite impressive with Ms Thompson (who you may have seen on TV's "Veronica Mars' and will see in the upcoming MLK bio-pic, "Selma") quite riveting as the angry but conflicted Sam.

"Dear White People" displays that while much has improved for African-Americans in this color-blind age of Obama, many issues regarding race relations have evolved very little. We, as a society, should finally be ready for a serious, meaningful discussion of this topic yet the question remains; is anybody able to really listen to each other? Anybody?