"She's like Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed off baby."
Just when I thought that all of the award winners of 2014 were now out of the way and I could finally focus on 2015, here comes ‘Dear White People’, a film that won numerous awards at the Sundance Film Festival, indecently that was in January of last year and came out in America in October, so over a year after its premier and nearly a year after its wide release, here it is.
This film follows a group of African American college students as they navigate campus life and racial tensions in a mostly white populated area. As the repercussions of a racist party on their campus play out we take a look back at the events that led to it.
Now, I say this in all best intentions and if it is deemed to be slightly offensive and an obvious and clichéd comparison then sorry (wow what a great way to start a review, I can feel the tension of whatever room the reader’s in change), ‘Dear White People is very reminiscent of a Spike Lee film. Not just because of the palpable element of race but also due to the fact that while they both incorporate that theme, it’s used as a backdrop for an even deeper and more universal message, identity. Here we see several African-American characters trying to deduce who they are and how they fit into the collective establishment around them. Every person will face these challenges but what Spike Lee did and what director Justin Simien does here is use the added element of race to make that process and phase more involving and relevant to society as a whole.
It’s a very smart and original film. The screenplay is sharp and quick in its pace with a robust and intrepid foundation. It is deeply refreshing to see a film acknowledge and confront certain issues that many directors will go to great lengths to try and avoid such as race, sexual taboo and class conflict. Simien’s directorial choices are strong and both evident and understated throughout, highlighting the intelligence of his script and the overall eloquence the film carries with it.
The cast also acts out these snappy one liners and heated debates in fantastic fashion. In a film addressing issues such as this the actors need to be convincing enough to create an illusion that the opinion they express in the film really is what they believe, it’s what they devote their life to and they are troubled by the fact that the rest of the world does not view it this way. Take one character, Samantha (Tessa Thompson), she has created a list of numerous forms of media that she defines as racist, on it are films such as ‘Birth of a Nation’ (no matter how impressive the spectacle is or as a cinematic achievement the racist label that is most definitively true for that film, it’s basically KKK propaganda) but she also adds ‘Gone with the Wind’ and Tarantino movies (more debatable but there is an argument there). This could come across as being slightly extreme to some viewers but the more I listened to her story and how she genuinely held on to these viewpoints made me start to question it myself. None of this would have been possible without the solid performance Thompson gave.
For most of the time ‘Dear White People’ is as entertaining as it is thought provoking. The racial tension is clear and obvious throughout but rarely consumes the film (another classic ingredient from Spike Lee’s masterpiece ‘Do the Right Thing’). There’s no attempt to force any particular view on the audience, just to allow them to watch one event from a different perspective.
However as smart and slick as the film is it does sag a little. There a numerous subplots that range from gritty to downright unbelievable and it stops the film from really telling a contained and compelling story. The effect can be a bit disorientating, but then again maybe that was the intention, there is enough ambiguity within the ending to let the flaw be disguised as more of a creative choice.
Witty, sly and comedic ‘Dear White People’ is an fluent, if not slightly messy, satire on racial tension.