Alfred Hitchcock once said that a filmmaker who stresses about story is like a painter who worries whether the apple he’s painting is sweet or sour. In other words, style is everything. Although the master of suspense was obviously taking his argument to its logical, if absurd, conclusion, writer-director Justin Simien should pay heed, as his feature debut, Dear White People, is doomed not so much by what he’s saying as by his inability to say it.
Fictional, seemingly idyllic Winchester University is primed for a racial meltdown. Samantha White, an outspoken half-black student and host of a popular radio show titled – you guessed it – “Dear White People” has just been elected head of the largest traditionally black house on campus. The white college president has just instituted a plan that would restructure living assignments, thus turning the house into a mixed-race residence, and White vows to fight it.
“Blackface is alive and well in our culture,” Sam (a fairly effective Tessa Thompson) tells her white boyfriend. “Who primarily buys hip-hop, watches Housewives of Atlanta [and embraces] the same homogenized images of black people over and over again? White people!”
Though her boyfriend, played well by newcomer Justin Dobies, reminds her that blacks are the ones who watch Tyler Perry movies, she’s not swayed and believes that blacks are incapable of racism.
“Black people can’t be racist,” she argues. “Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”
Countering that argument is the college president’s son, a stereotypical white frat dude (Kyle Gallner). “Your biggest athletes, … movie stars and president [are] black,” he argues. “Sometimes I think the hardest thing to be in the American workforce right now is an educated white guy. You [black] guys have still got affirmative action.”
Though Simien’s script contains mildly interesting and provocative ideas such as this, it reads more like a term paper on race than an actual film. Yes, various subplots add depth, all leading to the climax, which involves campus outrage over a racially offensive party designed to allow white students to “liberate their inner Negro.” But the uneven concoction lurches from comedy to drama to satire so often that it becomes difficult to either take seriously or laugh at.
The problems with tone are exacerbated by poor pacing, chapter titles that give the film an unnecessarily choppy feel and a score with all the subtlety of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. While some of the performances – particularly that of Brandon Bell as Sam’s fellow student leader – grow on you, the slightly smart twist ending doesn’t correct the mistakes of a first-time director.
Let me conclude with my own greeting: Dear white people (and members of all other races), avoid this movie, as it doesn’t do much more for race relations than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac did for the issue of sexual addiction.
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