By Muhammad MuzammalSPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE
First time writer-director Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” is a mildly funny and perceptive look at racial tension in modern day America.
The film follows four African American college students, attending an Ivy-League type college (Winchester University), attempt to navigate the sociopolitical war zone of “post-racial” America, within the world of their prestigious campus.
The four mentioned characters are as follows: the nerdy, shy and timid homosexual writer Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the following-in-his-father’s-footsteps alpha male Troy (Brendan Bell), the fired up, passionate racial activist Sam White and the attention seeking, desperate-to-be-famous Coco (Teyonah Parris). It should come as no surprise that these are caricatures.
Thus, one of Simien’s greatest achievements in the film is breaking down his characters and revealing them not as recycled cliches of college-themed movies, but as individualistic people stemming internal conflicts.
Take Sam as an example. At first, her character seems like a ferocious firebrand but, as the film progresses, her facade breaks and we see her for who she is: an open minded art savvy film student, who prefers Ingmar Bergman to Spike Lee. Sam says she believes the contrary.
The movie builds up to a climax that recalls the intense, fiery final scene of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” where racial violence occurred at a pizza place. In “Dear White People,” the showdown is at a college party, where the white attendees, covered in blackface, wear loose, dangling clothing and speak with low tone voices, mocking everything black, as the media portrays.
Lionel, alongside the titular “Dear White People” group of ethnic students, invades the party and bedlam ensues. Simien,wisely, never makes the film too self-serious and keeps the comedy at a steady rhythm.Which remarkably and miraculously, works.
In trying to convey the state of race in America today, Simien pulls off the arduous task of making a satirical film that is self-conscious and not too tonally inconsistent.
That being said its not a total success. “Dear White People” though consistent in tone and mood, is not edited well. Simien intercuts between scenes and instead of being clear and concise, the movie feels jagged and messy. It’s hard to follow at times and may benefit from a re-cut.
Most importantly, this film feels timely and not outdated. With respect to recent events in Ferguson and suspected racism towards African American males in mass incarceration, “Dear White People” is a great work to mirror the world we live in, where racism still exists
However the movie is not all about racism. It works well as a film about finding one’s identity and if it may seem preachy at first, it becomes balanced at the end, where all the characters, regardless of their race, are given equal depth and insight.
The movie ends with a thoughtful image that rings optimism towards the future. A white hand holds a black hand and the two figures walk off into the distance, not hellbent on fighting each other but working to accept one another. The world could use more of that.