Although amateurish at times, belying its status as a debut feature for writer-director Justin Simien, Dear White People demands attention for the disarming way it uses humor to address a variety of issues about race. Not since Spike Lee’s early work has there been a movie so full of provocative ideas—and a sly sense of humor.
The setting is a mostly-white Ivy League-type college where a militant black student named Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) makes regular appearances on the campus radio station, beginning her diatribes with the salutation, “Dear White People.” Her ex-boyfriend (Brandon P. Bell) couldn’t be more different. He never makes waves and he’s dating a white girl. Samantha’s rival for supremacy on campus is a savvy student (Teyonah Parris) who has her own ideas about how things should work. Finally, there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams, whom you may remember from the TV series Everybody Hates Chris), as a shy observer with a gigantic Afro who seems to alienate everyone around him.
Simien takes aim at hypocrisy wherever he finds it: among students white and black, self-serving administrators, tradition-bound fraternities and callow would-be journalists.
Unfortunately, he has crammed all of his ideas into a lumpy, distended screenplay with serious structural problems. The way some scenes are shot and edited is distracting, as well. But Dear White People reminds us that good ideas trump form and style. Simien’s debut feature may be messy at times, but its ideas are compelling and funny. That’s hard to ignore…or resist.