A bonafide satire of the Obama age, writer-director Justin Simien’s persistently funny “Dear White People” perceptively skewers virtually every facet of racial confusion in modern American society. While black comedians like Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock have provided searing insight into the absurdities of lingering racial tensions, Simien consolidates much about the paradoxes explored in those acts and many others into a wildly enjoyable and scathing farce. By exploring the heated debates between white and black students at an upscale college, Simmien both mocks and provokes the nature of our seemingly progressive times by illuminating misguided assumptions and fears embedded in forward-thinking discourse. But Simien’s relentless screenplay is never too self-serious or didactic, instead pairing culturally-savvy brains with a goofy grin.
Set at the fictional Winchester University, “Dear White People” draws its title from the radio show of fiery biracial student Samantha White (a ceaselessly energetic Tessa Thompson), whose lively, comical advice (“dating a black person just to piss off your parents is a form of racism”) has made her a local celebrity. The show gains the attention of a reality show, which enrages the envious student Coco Conners (Teyonah Paris), who attempts to launch an unseemly black advice show of her own. Controversy over Sam’s popularity leads to a snowballing of feuds between various cliques, culminating with a controversial black-themed party hosted by white students during which every major character comes into play. Having established that outcome in its opening scene, the movie flashes back to explore the interlocking social circles and various squabbles that led to that outcome.
While Sam copes with pressure from the school’s politically correct dean (Dennis Haysbert) — whose pot-smoking son (Brand P. Bell) struggles to adhere to his father’s stern expectations — “Dear White People” introduces its other central character: Shy, afro-sporting bookworm Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), recruited by the school’s uber-white newspaper to cover the mounting shitstorm, even though he doesn’t know much about the situation and doesn’t really seem to care.
Viewed together, the characters represent equally fascinating struggles: For Sam, going against the grain and speaking her mind provides the only true venue for laying bare social prejudices, while Lionel seems more content to pretend they don’t exist. Simien frames their experiences in the context of a stylishly constructed world, introducing the segregated university life with a series of title cards connoting the various departments and clubs. “Dear White People” features a fully realized world with the polish of a studio production that no studio would make today, a fact that enhances its polemical value. The ensemble cast and sprawling mini-dramas are sometimes too vast for their own good, but when Simien settles into focusing on his two leads’ experiences, “Dear White People” remains consistently funny and thoughtful at once.
Both Sam and Lionel have become insulated by their views, and require the efforts of others to help them adjust to the angry, bewildered climate surrounding them. In Sam’s case, the uneven source of assistance comes from her white friend Gabe (Justin Dobies), with whom she carries on a physical relationship behind closed doors while resisting his attempts to formalize their relationship. He’s the only one capable of cutting through her bitter act to see the crafty performance artist beneath. “You’re more Banksy than Barack,” he tells her. “You should hold a mirror to your audience rather than dropping cannon balls on their heads.” Lionel faces the opposite conundrum, professing his interest in high art over ethnic dilemmas without realizing he can do both at once.
It’s this perspective that allows “Dear White People” to reflect on its distinctive ingredients and carry it through the occasional uneven patches of storytelling: With its crowd scenes of young black and white people bickering about the constructs keeping them apart, “Dear White People” is a visual representation of society boiled down to an ethnographic petri dish, filled with combustible ingredients that react to everything that preceded it.
Though its premise may invite easy comparison’s to Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” Simien’s script invokes the history of black representation onscreen from “Birth of a Nation” to Madea. The filmmaker engages with the resonance of race in pop culture as a motivating force that informs behavior. “You watched ‘Do the Right Thing’ in high school and want to prove you’re down,” Sam tells Gabe in a frustrated attempt to resist his advances. Others characterize her in similarly reductive terms. “You’re like Spike Lee and Oprah had some pissed-off baby.” At one point, Sam leads a protest of Tyler Perry movies at the local movie theater, yielding a hilarious statement about the angst surrounding mainstream depictions of black characters that the movie addresses with its very existence.
While neither Sam or Lionel’s backstories receive substantial fleshing out (passing references to Sam’s ill father fail to reach the emotional tenor they’re designed to obtain), both actors bring a legitimacy to their performances that prevents “Dear White People” from going over the top. They’re key to making the humor click. Assailed for a confrontational class project titled “Rebirth of a Nation,” Sam’s told her flamboyant narrative is “light on story and thematically dubious.” Simien’s plot, by comparison, is exactly the opposite. Its end credits contain newspaper headlines detailing real life versions of the blackface gathering in question at universities around the country. Even as the jokes cut deep, “Dear White People” doesn’t hesitate to get real.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. “Dear White People” opens in limited release this Friday.