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Dear White People

Posted by martinteller on April 11, 2015

I regretted not seeing this in the theater, but I’m glad to have finally caught up with it.  First-time writer/director Justin Simien delivers a witty, smart comedy that’s not so much about race relations as it is about personal identity.  The ensemble cast provides a broad spectrum of attitudes.  The four leads cannot be easily pigeonholed into boxes like “the militant one”, “the Uncle Tom”, “the outsider”.  These are characters, not spokespeople.  Each of them struggles to find out who they are, how they’re perceived, and how they want to be perceived.  On one level, this is a universal problem; we’re all just trying to figure this shit out.  But the racial aspect makes it all the more difficult.  The film has layers upon layers of complexity about issues of race and identity, and doesn’t make it easy for any audience to come to a quick conclusion.  While there are some clearly wrong answers, there are no right ones.

Is it a reflection of my own racist bias that the first comparison point that comes to mind is Spike Lee… or is that just a product of a system that makes so little room for other black filmmakers?  Either way, Simien himself acknowledges the influence.  Lee is referenced twice in one conversation, and the references aren’t really even connected.  The movie theater scene is certainly done in the Lee style.  But this is no copy… it’s not School Daze meets Do the Right Thing.  Other influences are apparent as well, including Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick.  Bergman is referenced both verbally and visually (in an image straight out of Persona).  But while Simien wears his influences on his sleeve, he makes them part of his own style.

The cast is really great, at delivering both the comedy and the humanity.  Especially strong are Tyler James Williams (familiar to me from “Everybody Loves Chris” but probably more widely recognizable from his role on “The Walking Dead”) and Tessa Thompson (“Veronica Mars”).  On the negative side, President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen) is too much of a buffoon.  The character is operating on a level of satire and caricature that feels out of step with the rest of the picture.  I’m not saying there aren’t college presidents who have his attitude, I just think they’d be better at hiding it.  He felt like he belonged in a different movie.

That’s the only sour note, though.  Of course some jokes land better than others, but there’s a lot of funny here.  And more importantly, it raises a lot of thought-provoking questions in a stylish, intelligent manner.  Rating: Very Good (88)

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