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Review: 'Dear White People' is a race satire so sharp it draws blood

The Sundance hit "Dear White People" takes a satirical look at modern black identity, watching as students react to a black-themed party put on by whites.

Tyler James Williams, center, tries to deal with some dumb partiers in "Dear White People." Credit: Ashley Nguyen Tyler James Williams, center, tries to deal with some dumb partiers in "Dear White People."
Credit: Ashley Nguyen

‘Dear White People’
Director: Justin Simien
Stars: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

Despite the title, “Dear White People” — a razor sharp satire that often draws blood — isn’t really about white racism, though there’s plenty of that onscreen too. It’s about the diversity of its black characters. It views modern black life through the prism of a college campus, in this case an Ivy League one where most of the student body is white. It digs deep, with fine precision, into people often, in movies and in the media, lumped into one or at best two groups. In “Dear White People” they’re all over the place, forced to find some kind of messy unity against a common foe: a party thrown by white students in which they dress up in the broadest stereotypes of black life.

This incident, saved for the third act, gives this ensemble pic a drive, but it’s really a film of ideas, and of characters who are types yet highly specific types. There’s the nerdish aspiring journo (Tyler James Williams), who’s otherized by the white heads of the college paper. The “angry black woman” (Tessa Thompson) is trying to hide the fact that she likes Ingmar Bergman and Taylor Swift and maybe isn’t as fiery (or only into other black people) as she fronts. The token preppy (Brandon P. Hall) — the son of the stern, sell-out dean (Dennis Haysbert) — likes to amplify his blackness for whites, and is even dating a white girl. And then there’s the vlogger (Teyonah Parris) who feels compelled to warn her audience when she’s about to “get real black with you for a second.”

Every now and then "Dear White People" Justin Simien likes to have his characters stare into the lens, Jonathan Demme-style. Credit: Ashley Nguyen Every now and then "Dear White People" Justin Simien likes to have his characters stare into the lens, Jonathan Demme-style.
Credit: Ashley Nguyen

There are a lot of ideas and observations stuffed into “Dear White People,” so many that you can sense writer-director Justin Simien spending the 10 years it took to get it made cramming every new concept or joke he came up with into an ever-swelling script. But it doesn’t have a single m.o. No character is the voice of reason, though Williams’ smart wallflower comes the closest. In fact, sometimes the films seems little more than an assortment of observations, black-out scenes with only a tenuous connection to each other. They’re cogent observations, though, things that need to be said, and Simien moves his characters and his ideas around like an expert general would on a battlefield, all while slowly ratcheting up the tension until the film reaches its party conclusion and blows up.

It’s lazy, as Simien has said, to compare this to Spike Lee; it’s closer to Robert Altman, in its ensemble scope, or the early films of Milos Forman, like “The Fireman’s Ball,” which picked apart oppressive societies with a wry detachment. But “Dear White People” shares with Lee a sincere need to include voices, even ones he doesn’t agree with, and give everyone time to speak. (He also borrows Lee’s love for draping loud music over dialogue scenes, which play freely and independently of the people onscreen.) It’s a big party of people and ideas and jokes and tones — serious but very funny, but not joking, but always amusing. It says things that hurt, that no one else is saying, while at the same time creating a necessary, refreshing dialogue that happens onscreen and, surely, off.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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