HUGE SPOILER WARNINGS
Black filmmaking has historically been perceived as lacking nuance. I'm not saying it hasn't been, but the moviemakers one is most likely to think of include Atlanta's own Tyler Perry, churning out predictable and similarly plotted set pieces in assembly-line fashion. Likewise, protest films such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing have had an agenda, and it's hard to look for subtlety when the soundtrack is provided by Public Enemy.
So what kind of person is able to pull off a funny and poignant movie about race relations in the Obama era? A damn good one. One who manages to line everything up flawlessly: a tight script that folds in on itself like a puzzle box, with references from earlier in the movie being a valuable Chekhov's Gun later, a cast of relative unknowns giving performances of a lifetime, and a voice that patiently swirls around its cast and script like water, soaking in to everything and permeating every part of the movie.
"Dear White People" was written, directed and produced in 2014 by Justin Simien, a talent to keep an eye out on. Raved about at Sundance, he was worried at first that his first film would be thought of more of an art-house cult curiosity than a debut. But I for one am glad he was true to his voice.
The plot is seemingly simple. Light-skinned Sister Souljah-styled activist Sam hosts an on-campus radio show called "Dear White People" at an Ivy League school, in which she sarcastically comments on the well-meaning ways in which race relations don't always work out as well as the "post-racial" America would like. She runs for house president of a historically black dorm just to raise awareness about an issue, and finds herself beating the previous house president, a good looking black prep who happens to be the son of the dean (played by the "you're in good hands with Allstate guy).
Black nerd Lionel is aimless and drifting in his sophome year, and has been saddled with living in the privileged frat boy white dorm, where he is in every way bullied by the other residents. He's black, he's nerdy, and he's gay - and as such doesn't really fit in anywhere. He has a huge mop of Huey from the Boondocks style hair, which random white people play with and pick at, to his near-constant frustration. (It's a running joke that shows truth in film). He's looking for somewhere to fit in.
Meanwhile, would-be vlogger and vampish "Coco" seeks to make her impact in reality television, and tries valiantly to get the attention of a reality series producer. He lets her know that how reality TV works is, they set various random pieces in motion and capture the conflict. She has long, sewn-in 100% Indian hair, and a dress that she almost clearly stole from Marvel Comics. The producer, who shows up at the beginning of the film, says he'll be in touch.
The dean of the University is black, and the President is white. Though the President coasted through his classes back in the 1960s, while the dean graduated summa cum laude, the President has significantly more money and power, and less work to do. The two have been quietly jockeying for power for decades using everyone around them, and the Dean is pleased that his son is sleeping with the President's daughter at the beginning of the film.
It ends with the frustrated black students gatecrashing the frat dorm of the National Lampoon expy "Pastiche", which is hosting a Hallowe'en party involving pretending to be black. All the white people are in blackface, pointing fake guns at each other, and drinking cough-syrup laced drinks. Rap music blasts as every single negative stereotype of black culture is revelled in in an over-the-top fashion. (A fountain of purple drank sits in one corner). Students are of course in due course assaulted, and the film ends just as the enquiries into who did what start taking place after the police are called to restore order.
There are more layers in this film than an onion, and it's the kind of film where at one point a character is torn in three different directions, as opposed to the usual two - and in this case there's no clear "right path" and "wrong path". In some of the paths, there are actually second and third derivative issues involved (for example, if she chooses one path, amongst other things she has to consider the effect it will have on the Dean keeping her in school, meaning she has to think through how the President will pressure the Dean). All in real time, and the movie frames the three paths in such a way that there's ambiguity in terms of what each path means.
And brilliantly, the scene ends with her storming away, while the tension is broken masterfully when one party calls after her "you have our protest permits!"
Sometimes people are reflected in mirrors or walls, or seen through shadows darkly. A film studies student could have a field day jumping up and down enthusiastically deconstructing any of a number of scenes. Issues which are cut and dried one moment become ambiguous the next, and nobody, repeat nobody gets a pass.
It's also the kind of film in which a main character looks like a B-grade racist villain early on, like Christian Bale in Shaft, but at the end turns out to have nothing to do with the party being thrown (he was actually trying to stop it).
The main character, Lionel, is played by Tyler James Williams, who does a beautiful job in embodying a character who's funny but not a clown, and who has a very clear story arc from zero to hero. His performance is nuanced and understated, with a sense of comic timing that does not take away from the flow of the movie or the seriousness of the story. He's the kind of actor who can convey three different emotions at once just by looking up and to the left. He's the glue that holds the fllm together and he does it by having a presence everywhere without overshadowing anyone. He decides he wants to write, and is tapped by the "real" campus newspaper to follow the race relations unfolding on campus. As such, he becomes a "fly on the wall" everywhere, and an important narrator.
Most critics loved the film, and it's highly rated on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. The very, very few who didn't were upset that the core moment of the film is shown relatively briefly, and there's no real closure to the events in question at the film's end - but the movie's about peoples' reactions to what happens, not the events themselves. They also bemoan that the characters are all pretty mercenary, which is again, truth in art. Those who haven't seen it assume it bashes or thumbs its nose at whites, but there's an important plot point around the woman reading the "Dear White People" radio broadcast. And also, the only villain in the piece is such as a homophobic possibly closeted gay jerk - most of the people who do any of the black characters any injustice doing out of sheer cluelessness or blindness to the system they're in as opposed to any malicious intent.
It never occurs to the people at the party, for example, that the blacks who show up might even be remotely offended by the fake gold chains or the pants around the knees, or blackface face paint, until Lionel smashes the DJ equipment and punches are thrown. In fact, the group in question aggressively recruit two of the black characters in the hope of diversifying themselves.
And yes, there are some character development points around hair. At the beginning of the film one character tries to sneak off quickly to get his weekly haircut, saying "it's a black thing", while the ?uestlove-haired Lionel, who otherwise listens to Mumford and Sons and is decidedly a nerd - keeps his hair as a badge of pride, but shaves it specifically because of what it represents to someone else.
Stay tuned for the credits, in which scenes from actual parties like the one depicted in the film are mentioned. That's right, parties, plural - reminding the audience that yes, this happened, and yes, more than once, and yes, in the 2000s.
My only real problem with this film is that it is so good he's set the bar really, really high for his sophomore effort. We may very well have seen his magnum opus, his Citizen Kane, right off the bat. Typically, the first flim/script has had time to mature, to be developed, to be honed and nuanced and layered beautifully, so the layers harmonize but don't blend or become a cacophony. If Justin can pull this caliber of film off again, he will be remembered as a legend.
It's a throwback to the days in which films were made by auteurs, as opposed to studios, and were works of art, as opposed to properties. Not only is it a brilliant must-watch in and of itself, it shines even more as one of the few films that isn't some superhero property or some car-driving franchise with as many iterations as Friday the 13th. Please see this film as soon as you can.