The Dear in Dear White People is less 'beloved' and more 'to be addressed.' There's plenty of white people behaving badly here. This semi-autobiographical ensemble piece about a liberal arts university struggling with its race relations remains as depressingly timely as ever. As a debut from director Justin Simien, Dear White People successfully mixes character and satire before building to a stomach-churning climax.
Amidst the debate over the dorm integration, the characters take every opportunity to talk about race. Sam is the loudest and clearest voice, always ready with a historical perspective on a microaggression, thus turning it into a macroaggression. Those not with her are varying levels of sell-outs from the oofta Troy, comfortable being white dudes' one black friend, to the nosejob Coco, clad in weaves and unwilling to make people uneasy with her blackness. Troy's relationship provides for the depressing scenario of a white girl dating a black guy for the exoticism. Kurt and his father (Peter Syvertson) get to be the voices of unexamined privilege, declaring affirmative action a scam and racism a thing of the past. Lionel is largely above the proceedings, but he's so desperate to fit in with someone that he'll let a white acquaintance touch his large afro. Race suffuses every interaction.
This would be hectoring if the characters weren't sufficiently interesting. Lionel is the most sympathetic, given a puppy-dog appearance by Williams that fits with the character's loneliness. Coco's the most interesting, grappling with her reality-show goals and the self-hatred generated by their pursuit. Troy and Sam are slightly problematic, as Troy is a typical overstressed student and Simien leans heavily on Sam's mixed race heritage pulling her between two worlds. Bell isn't really elevating the character, but Thompson is and then some, giving her character the charisma to not be an insufferable mess of righteous indignation. Kurt is also underwritten as a stock oblivious bro. Dear White People isn't a subtle movie but its antagonists are painted in broader colors than are necessary.
Simien's film is perceptively written and consistently well-shot, starting from its opening intro of characters perfectly framed. His film scoffs at the idea of a post-racial America, culminating in a grotesque themed party replete with body paint, grills, and fake guns. That Simien adds pictures and video from real-life examples of the same over the end credits demonstrates that the talking points stressed in Dear White People need to be discussed. That his film is not just a surreptitious lecture in movie clothing is a testament to his talent. B