Ava DuVernay, a rising writer/director, noted the difficulty of handing over her work for review by the masses in the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself. When media gatekeepers are primarily composed of older, privileged white men, would her worldview be understood, let alone accepted? And is that acceptance validation or betrayal? These are not questions asked of white culture, in large part because it is perceived that they maintain a status quo - a default. Of course, this in itself is a quandary in that it robs white culture of a perceived sense of culture. Sides are drawn: the presumed culturally-vacant hegemony against the other. It’s all pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? This concept of racial superiority and the systemic racism that persists throughout not just our society, but all of society. Dear White People may not succeed as a broadly applicable study of racial turmoil, but its confrontational specificity makes for an especially bold debut.
Winchester University, a make-believe institution, is the inclusive hotbed for writer/director Justin Simien’s sprawling canvass. Opening sequences underscore the social divisions with white men and women identifying with their college house and embracing the camaraderie so often explored in films about the college experience. The image of a black woman, in the background of a densely populated white student body, operates as Dear White People’s thesis: what is it like for a black student in a mostly white college?
Simien makes several notices to Robert Altman and he impressively models his film after the late director, though two characters clearly operate the narrative vehicle in Sam (Tessa Thompson) and Lionel (Tyler James Williams). The two black students additionally represent other social handicaps: Sam’s a woman and Lionel is gay. But whereas Lionel is meek, Sam responds with angry flourishes, hosting an on-campus radio program (the titular “Dear White People”) where she discusses the less overt, but nevertheless prevalent, methods of racial subjugation. There are contradictions within herself though, as there are contradictions within all of us. She’s a remarkably fleshed out character with ideals that are shaken and compromised.
Lionel is equally as complicated though perhaps not quite as well-realized. He’s a black male sporting an abominable afro who cannot associate with white or black culture. His failure to connect socially seems to stem from his own perceived acceptance of white culture, considered something of a betrayal by the black student body. But then his homosexuality also seems to function as a social barrier to his ability to engage. It’s never especially clear, though it’s a testament to Tyler James Williams’ performance that he manages to recruit the audiences’ sympathies without relying on the script’s attempts to victimize him.
The structural looseness makes for a compulsively entertaining film, with Simien showing sharp instincts behind the camera. His sense of visual space, playing on the absurdist tone that the picture adopts. Simien is diligent about lining up the thematically-charged material with a sense of tonal absurdness, bridging the gap in deft ways visually. Consider an exchange between the Dean of Student (Dennis Haysbert) and Winchester’s President (Peter Syvertsen) - Simien is very eager to express their animosity by refraining from having them in the same frame. Rather, Simien’s camera jarringly moves from one to the other in extreme close-up, as if using the frame as a platform for social domination. It’s this sort of attuned filmmaking gesture that only highlights the obvious satirical tone that Simien strives for.
But being satirical does not make any of Simien’s observations any less potent and it’s a damn impressive feat that the director covers so much ground within the confines of this university. Everything from the socioeconomic status of the student body (which includes a very humorous in-the-know Chicago-based joke) to the sexual politics between black and white students are touched upon with swift yet expressed sensitivity.
When entering the picture, my concern was that the film's inclusive structure would attempt to disingenuously apply broad racial stereotypes over a large culture: a university setting, despite its best intentions, is not a culturally representative sample population. Is Dear White People the sort of film that could appeal to the black population of Ferguson, MO - where its per capita income fails to exceed $21,000? The surprising - and ultimately disappointing - answer is that it does. Simien has crafted a social document of a film, one where American culture ought to reconsider what it means to be black and white in our society. And on a more fundamental level: what it means to be a tolerant human being.