Film review - Dear White People

2015-04-19 16:32

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Dear White People

Director: Justin Simien

Starring: Tessa Thompson,

Brandon Bell

With a kick-back indie feel reminiscent of the satirical series The Boondocks, Dear White People delivers the wry and honest insights of four complex black characters who spend their days in the florid halls of an Ivy League university in the US.

The film is not an indictment of white people or full of holier-than-thou grandstanding. It’s a look at what it’s like being black in a predominantly white space.

It’s also a reminder that “black” is not a singular state of being and that adapting or rejecting a system of white privilege often comes at a personal cost.

Director Justin Simien’s light hand is what makes this movie.

There are no caricatures, no straw man white racists, no infallible black heroes or Afro-centric stereotypes.

Even the movie’s protagonist, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a mixed-race student who hosts a radio show called Dear White People and campaigns to keep her university residence black, is imperfect.

She might be seen as the hero of the black consciousness movement in her residence, but is suffering from a serious case of activism burnout and is tired of being the typical “mad black woman”.

Although White might be the movie’s lead, the most interesting character, for me, is Coco, played by Teyonah Parris.

Coco is an unapologetic social climber. She cares little about what the likes of Sam and the Black Student Union think of her straight weave and “white- girl” vocabulary.

She is the type of woman who might be criticised for not being “black enough”, but understands she’s operating in a white world, one that rewards assimilation and where being the palatable black friend of the rich, white kids will get you places.

The film culminates in a confrontation at a blackface Halloween party on campus.

Although this is a fictional event, Simien based it on an actual party at the University of California in February 2010.

The off-campus party, dubbed the Compton Cookout, asked its predominantly white guests to dress as “ghetto chicks and gangsters” during Black History Month. The invite featured a photo of a black man holding KFC and the hosts promised to serve watermelon.

This is not a perfect movie. Its multiple character arcs are confusing, and there are some frustrating lags in tempo and pacing, but Simien’s witty script and well-developed characters make up for it.

With its copious pop references to Twitter, YouTube, Banksy, et al, this is a Spike Lee joint for a new generation.

It’s a modern thinkpiece in solidarity with the black experience that also gently nudges its white viewers to do some serious self-reflection.

Amen to that.

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