Movie Review: Dear White People (2014)

Posted: January 16, 2016 in Comedy, Drama, Romance
Tags: ,

dearwhitepeople

Elite Winchester University has one all-black fraternity, Armstrong Parker. Head of the frat house, and son of  Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) goes along with the university’s plans to integrate the fraternity.  Troy’s decision is greeted with derision from ex-girlfriend, Sam White. (Tessa Thompson)  She decides to run against him for head of the frat house, and wins.  Sam wants to start a petition to keep Armstrong Parker all-black.  Sam’s entrenchment creates tensions with the white fraternities. Kurt Fletcher  (Kyle Gallner) son of the college president, and head of one of the white fraternities, plans a party in response to Sam’s strong stand on Armstrong Parker. Kurt invites Sam’s rival, Coco Conners  (Teyonah Parris) to his party, and she gleefully accepts.  What happens when Sam and Troy crash Kurt’s party?

Is Dear White People a satire of racial tensions in American universities?  It undoubtedly starts out that way, but writer director Justin Simien does not take the issue of race head on, so it’s hard to tell what kind of movie it is.  So many characters have ulterior motives in this movie that it’s hard to determine what people’s motives are.  Simien mocks Tyler Perry, and rightly so, for overbaked drama, but at times his drama echoes Perry.  Sometimes, this movie devolves into who’s dating who, and who is taking revenge on whom. Further, it is only the black people in the movie who smoke marijuana, is that reinforcing a stereotype?  The musical chairs dating, the ulterior motives of most of the characters, and the well-connected progeny, obscures the very real issue of racial tension on college campuses..  There was a twist near the end, and a tacked on happy ending that further dilutes the issue of race. Dear White People aspires to be Do The Right Thing, one of the actors even reminds me of Spike Lee, but too often the script plays it safe. The only scene that resonated with me was a confrontation between the Dean and his son. Unfortunately, most of the white characters are woefully underdeveloped.  What motivated them to act and react the way they do?  The writers have no insight here.

The acting is very good and almost make up for the deficiencies of the script.  Tessa Thompson just grabs the viewers’ attention and doesn’t let go. She has a powerful voice that demands attention. Teyonah Parris and Brandon Bell are very good as black people trying to straddle the racial divide. Dennis Haysbert is also very good as the Dean, who worked hard to get where he is, and not only does he want to stay there, he wants his son to stay on the straight and narrow. It is a powerful performance.

The direction is mixed.  There is nothing visually daring here in this film.  A Spike Lee film usually just popped with color, at times the films would make you feel claustrophobic or warm, Lee’s visual template set the mood for his films.  Simien makes no effort to challenge his viewers , visually or thematically, but he does get good performances from many of the younger actors in the film, so he gets credit for that.  As a side note, Effie Brown was one of the producers of this film, she made herself known in this year’s Project Greenlight season.  The film had the look of a much more expensive film, and credit for that goes in part to Brown.

Dear White People:  Does not take on race as forcefully as it should.

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