The depressing number of race-mocking frat parties in recent years becomes the jumping-off point for a snarky but good-humored cultural debate in “Dear White People.” Bristling with arguments about the complexities of black identity in a supposedly post-racial America, this lively and articulate campus-set comedy proves better at rattling off ideas and presenting opposing viewpoints than it does squeezing them into a coherent narrative frame. But while it veers toward smugness and self-satisfaction at times, the Spike-Lee-lite exercise nonetheless heralds a fresh and funny new voice on the scene in writer-director Justin Simien, bolstered by an an excellent cast that should find an especially appreciative audience among young black moviegoers; whether a significant portion of white viewers accept the invitation extended by the title remains to be seen.
One of the more self-referential gags here concerns the dearth of cinematic options for black audiences that don’t involve Tyler Perry, a problem to which Simien’s movie, successfully crowd-funded on the basis of a well-received three-minute concept trailer, presents itself as one of many possible solutions. Coming on the heels of a year that brought us “12 Years a Slave,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station,” all fact-based dramas that confronted the challenges of being an underprivileged black person at different moments in U.S. history, “Dear White People” takes satirical aim at a more rarefied sphere of African-American experience, unfolding on a fictitious Ivy League campus that becomes a sort of elite microcosm of present-day race relations — the hallowed-halls answer to the all-black Mission College in “School Daze.”
The black students at Winchester U. have no shortage of influence, opportunity and social/intellectual mobility, but they’re still forced to deal with outsider assumptions and, no less important, their own preconceptions of how they should behave. At the “respectable” end is university golden boy Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), who’s dating a white girl (Brittany Curran) and is in all respects the very picture of cooperative, non-threatening black masculinity. At the opposite extreme is Troy’s ex-girlfriend, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a self-styled militant activist determined to shake up Winchester’s predominantly white student body, using her radio talkshow to issue pithy, silky-voiced putdowns like, “Dear white people … please stop dancing.” Positioning herself as Sam’s rival for social-media supremacy is the beautiful and ambitious Coleandra “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris, “Mad Men”), who, with her straight weave and reality-TV aspirations, has little use for anyone’s fight-the-power rhetoric.
These tensions come to a head when Sam unexpectedly dethrones Troy as student head of the Armstrong/Parker House, a historically black residence hall that has been impacted by the university’s recent Randomization of Housing Act; where others see a healthy diversification measure, Sam sees a pernicious establishment move to break up one of the few venues where students of color can be with their own kind. Observing from the sidelines is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, “Everybody Hates Chris”), a gay student with an unwieldy Afro but little interest in “black culture,” per se; he’s the school’s most glaring misfit, as well as living testament to the film’s thesis that a person’s identity is far too fluid and contradictory to squeeze into a narrow mold.
To Simien’s credit, that complexity extends to all four of his central characters, none of whom make it to film’s end without feeling at least somewhat conflicted about themselves, the political stances they take, the people they sleep with, and the art they create and consume. (One of the movie’s key points is that nothing breaks down cultural barriers more effectively than, well, culture, which explains why Sam can at one point make a controversial short film called “The Rebirth of a Nation,” featuring Obama haters in whiteface, and later grudgingly admit that she likes Taylor Swift.) Meanwhile, the temptation to move up the ladder proves a stumbling block for Troy, who’s angling to join the staff of the school’s Lampoon-style humor publication, as well as student journalist Lionel, who’s trying to turn Sam’s campaign into an attention-getting news story.
Simien’s stylized, confrontational approach enables him direct access to his characters’ thoughts, ambitions, hang-ups and concerns in a way that a more naturalistic piece couldn’t have managed, and he grants them plenty of room to debate each other on all manner of topics: affirmative action, the homogenized images of black life in American culture, the racist undertones in “The Gremlins,” the question of how much to tip for bad restaurant service, the Republican Party as latter-day lynch mob, don’t touch my hair, etc. If the dialogue at times sounds a touch predigested, the quips too pleased with their own cleverness, it’s par for the course with this sort of volley-of-ideas storytelling.
What’s missing from the picture, more crucially, is a sense of filmmaking energy and verve that would match the force of its verbiage. Scene by scene, “Dear White People” is carefully composed (by d.p. Topher Osborn), precisely edited (by Phillip J. Bartell), divided into neat little chapters, and scored to passages from “Swan Lake” and “Fur Elise,” to deliberately arch and distancing effect. Meanwhile, en route to its explosive “African-American-themed party” climax, which owes something to recent history and something to “Do the Right Thing,” the story wanders in a few less-than-productive directions, most of them involving the tricky friendship/rivalry between Troy and smug white student Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), and the fact that their fathers are Winchester’s dean (Dennis Haysbert) and president (Peter Syversten), respectively. It’s the sort of contrived plotting more befitting a soap than a satire, and it has the effect of diminishing the film’s impact and insight at just the point when it should be expanding in the viewer’s mind.
If it ultimately feels modestly edgy rather than shocking or dangerous, “Dear White People” nonetheless provokes admiration for having bothered to ask some of the hard questions without pretending to know any of the answers. It also works as a fine showcase for its actors: Fleshing out characters that could have been little more than one-note mouthpieces, Williams, Thompson, Parris and Bell all make strong, distinctive impressions, with Thompson perhaps the standout as the film’s sharpest and most enigmatic figure.