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1 review, 2 user ratings

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Dear White People
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by Jay Seaver

"Admirably methodical and thorough in its satire."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: As one of the folks being addressed by this movie's title, I'm not exactly in the best position to comment on how true-to-life or incisive it may be (and let's just leave how out-of-date my memories of college may be right out of the discussion, OK?), so I can only judge it on how much it made me laugh. Thankfully, that's a lot; it's very funny even if it never lets the audience forget that it's heading somewhere serious.

The college in question is Armstrong University, where proposed policy change to assign housing more randomly has Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) up in arms enough to campaign against her popular ex-boyfriend Troy (Brandon P Bell) for leadership of their traditionally African-American house as well as beat the drum on her "Dear White People" campus radio show/webcast. Their issues and rivalry aren't enough to cause the campus to boil over, but there's more: Sam has rubbed Kurt Hutchinson (Kyle Gallner), the head of the prestigious campus comedy magazine, the wrong way, and earned the envy of transfer student Colandrea "Coco" Connors (Teyonah Parris). And then there's Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), tormented by Kurt but reluctant to transfer to Sam's house because, based on his high school experience, gay black men get it worse from other African Americans than anyone else.

There are even more characters and subplots; if Dear White People were a TV show rather than a movie, Dennis Haysbert would have an "and" credit as the Dean (and Troy's father) and there would be several boyfriends, girlfriends, and sidekicks who recurred. There are frequent moments when it seems the setup might work better as a serial as characters and subplots get pushed aside and reshuffled pairings don't get all the attention they might because writer/director Justin Simien has his eye on the big Halloween party incident that he teased in the opening scenes before jumping back to the beginning of the school year. And make no mistake, that focus is to be praised: Even though it often seems like Simien and company are just inching forward, the sense is that he's been thorough without including anything extraneous.

That attention to detail pays off in the character work. Almost without exception, the characters are introduced to the audience as being funny, if familiar, stereotypes, but a good three quarters have a very different persona under that, with some having a third stratum. Sometimes it's used as a way to set up or make jokes, but more often than not, it makes the character more interesting and ties in to the various reasons people work so hard on presenting themselves as what they think they should be without their parents around. There's usually a bit of truth in both perspectives on the character, and Simien gives himself and his cast room to see the whole person, and generally not just as cartoons with human beings underneath.

Take Sam; Tessa Thompson spends a fair chunk of the movie's first half being angry but in a frequently funny way, but when we finally see more of what makes her tick, Thompson does a fine job of making it clear that there's nothing inauthentic about what we've seen; there is just more to her, and though the director never frames it that way, emphasizing that part of herself must be exhausting. Teyonah Parris never quite gives that vibe off even though she's playing Coco much more broadly, but she's mostly selling jokes and ambition. Tyler James Williams makes Lionel an amusing outsider for the entire audience to sympathize with; he plays the guy as both dry and vulnerable enough to roll with the figurative punches while making sure we see that they do hurt. Kyle Gallner doesn't get much chance to be much more than the villain of the piece, although his Kurt does become a little more interesting than just a source of smarm as the thread about the long rivalry between his and Troy's father's picks up. Dennis Haysbert and Peter Seyvertsen play that in a way that emphasizes the differing perspectives people in such a situation have - simmering resentment for Haysbert's dean, presumptive ignorance for Seyvertsen's president - and all sides of that get reflected in how Brandon P Bell plays Troy. It's actually kind of a fascinating performance to watch; Bell gets to play funny tics as well as any of the others, but also has to be convincing as a guy who may be tremendously ambitious or who may be chafing under the ambitions others have foisted onto him. It's a nifty high-wire walk; it's frequently difficult to like Troy, but occasionally not, and the way he slips from one state to the next is impressive.

I do wonder, a bit, if the stakes may be a little small - not necessarily because the from-the-headlines party we know it's building to is anything less than offensive, but because we know precisely what's coming. Certainly, the getting there is plenty of fun, but it can be tough to shock when the build-up to something is so careful and deliberate.

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originally posted: 05/13/14 14:32:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/31/15 Jeff WIlder Effective satire. 4 stars
9/12/14 FireWithFire Dear Black People: GO TO HELL....TWO TIMES 1 stars
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  17-Oct-2014 (R)
  DVD: 03-Feb-2015


  DVD: 03-Feb-2015

Directed by
  Justin Simien

Written by
  Justin Simien

  Tyler James Williams
  Tessa Thompson
  Teyonah Parris
  Brandon Bell

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