Ann Hornaday (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
“Satire is the weapon of reason,” one character tells another in “Dear White People,” a movie that exemplifies that sentiment with a potent combination of playfulness and pointed cultural critique.
This alternately thoughtful and hilarious comedy of campus manners is the bracingly candid brainchild of first-time filmmaker Justin Simien, who has created that rarity in American society: a movie that simultaneously sends up the national “conversation about race” while advancing the conversation itself. It would be glib to note that “Dear White People” is cannily well-timed in the era of Ferguson, Missouri, and the myriad, fatally unresolved issues that city has come to symbolize. The truth, of course, is that the occasionally stark, occasionally ridiculous but constantly shifting contours of entrenched racism are relevant at any time.
Relevant but, in the right hands, entertaining, too: Simien maintains a scrupulously light tone and deft touch throughout “Dear White People,” which takes place on the campus of a fictional Ivy League college called Winchester. There, African-American students — representatives of the “talented 10” percent — grapple with identity, expectations and ambition at a primarily white institution that congratulates itself for its liberalism.
Sam (Tessa Thompson), a hip film student, hosts a radio show called “Dear White People,” during which she recounts, with even-toned sarcasm, the ways she and her fellow students of color are routinely pigeonholed, stigmatized and condescended to. It’s a form of reparations; asked why there can’t be a show called “Dear Black People,” she sharply retorts that “mass media, from Fox News to reality TV on VH1, makes it clear what white people think of us.”
Sam’s willingness to speak truth to power makes her something of a militant on campus, which comes into play when she takes up the cause of a historically black dorm that has recently begun “randomizing” room assignments, thus diluting not just its complexion but its role of providing solidarity and protection. She runs for head of house against Troy (Brandon Bell), the handsome son of Winchester’s dean, who believes that assimilation holds the key to his son’s success.
Meanwhile Coco (Teyonah Parris), who wears blue contact lenses and flat hair worthy of Heidi Klum, begins publicly to push back on Sam’s show, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams) uneasily moves from house to house, his hipsterism and homosexuality making him the target of bullies of all races. “I listen to Mumford & Sons and I like Robert Altman movies,” he notes at one point, letting his predicate — “where’s my community?” — to remain unspoken.
The academic term of art for what “Dear White People” portrays is “intersectionality,” which seeks to describe how identity is conditioned, not by one reductive quality, but by multiple tastes, impulses, desires and fears. You can also just call it “life,” and Simien’s film always feels like something experienced firsthand, even at its most awkward. Dating — inter-racial and intra-racial — collective memory and the “strange symbiosis” of cultural appropriation all come under scrutiny in a film whose allegiance is firmly with individual expression, but isn’t naive enough to think that history doesn’t matter. The personal may not always be political in “Dear White People” but, like it or not, it’s always politicized.
Even students who would prefer to ignore that fact are reminded of it in the film’s climactic episode, a spectacularly insensitive campus party awash with noxious racial stereotypes that looks like a rare case of overstatement in “Dear White People” until a final credit sequence proves that it’s depressingly true-to-life.
All justification to the contrary, Simien rejects bitterness or polemic when addressing “Dear White People’s” cardinal themes, preferring to refract the world of “post-racial” America through a lens of bemused, occasionally appalled, humor. One moment he’s examining the curious legacy of Tyler Perry, or considering the contradictions of a black protagonist as being “more Banksy than Barack”; the next he’s looking askance at a white person curiously fingering Lionel’s unruly Afro or a bunch of preppy white dudes swilling Jameson and doing their Dockers-wearing best to sound “street.”
It’s all up for grabs in a film that, for its willingness to confront head-on the toxic and the taboo, is bracingly free of cant. “Dear White People” isn’t a vehicle for grievance, but the cockeyed, even optimistic, portrait of people forced to navigate, resist and sometimes exploit an irrational system of unearned privilege. It’s true that satire is the perfect weapon of reason, and Justin Simien deploys it with resourcefulness, cool assurance and eagle-eyed aim.
Three stars. Rated R. Contains profanity, sexuality and drug use. 100 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.