As the repercussions of a racist party on a college campus play out, we rewind to see the events that led us here.
Dear White People is set at Winchester University, not the real one in Hampshire but a fictional Ivy League school in America whose Latin motto is “Nosce te ipsum” — “know yourself”. Which is apt, because this smart and original film is all about a set of black characters attempting to work out who they are and how they fit into this Waspy establishment. Samantha (Tessa Thompson), who lumps Tarantino movies in with The Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind on her list of racist media, uses an internet radio show to vent her furious views. Troy (Brandon Bell) belies his golden-boy image by smoking weed behind closed doors. Coco (Teyonah Parris) wears blue contact lenses and tries to fit in with the white crowd at any cost.
Writer-director Justin Simien started work on his debut film by setting up a Twitter account (@dearwhitepeople) and sending out a barrage of one-liners. This explains why his screenplay is often so sharp, but also perhaps why the overall structure is a little baggy. The premise is strong and bold (who else is making movies about what it means to be young and black in America right now?), and Simien has both a distinctive voice and decent directorial chops. Performances are uniformly strong, while the classical soundtrack has a disorientating effect, as if programmed by the preppy villains. But Dear White People sometimes feels more like an over-busy collection of skits than one compelling story. An unconvincing subplot involving a reality-TV producer could have been trimmed away to make a leaner piece.
That said, for much of its runtime it’s as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. The crucial ingredient is humour. Simien isn’t a firebrand, forcing his opinions on the viewer; instead, he continually punctures the intensity of the subject matter with a silly one-liner or deft sight gag. There’s a running joke about how white people love to touch the giant afro of gay loner Lionel (Tyler James Williams), and Samantha expounds a fun — if not exactly new — argument about the inherent racism of Gremlins. It makes for a movie that tackles topical issues without becoming cinematic All-Bran.
If Dear White People is a little messy, one of its main strengths is its ambiguity — each character has a point of view and reason for doing what they do. Except, perhaps, for the sneering white-and-wealthy baddies, so one-dimensional that they might have teleported in from Revenge Of The Nerds.
Do the right thing take a break from summer spectacle to check out this assured and eloquent indie.