Dear White People—Movie Review

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.

(Photo by Ashley Nguyen – Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024