Dear White People (London Film Festival 2014) Review
If the open lettered title isn’t clear enough, Dear White People is a bold, sharply written satire addressing the evolution of racism in 21st century America. Director/writer Justin Simien targets the worrying pattern of college parties picking “blackface” as a theme (“we wanted to be black for a night”), but also the increasingly blurred notion of identity in a supposedly post-racial society.The comedy’s four main characters – all black – represent different survival methods in an elite campus where the colour of one’s skin dominates the conversation and airwaves. Most prominent is the new head of student house, Samantha White (outstanding performer Tessa Thompson), who’s also a radio personality described as “like Spike Lee and Oprah had a pissed off baby”. Upon defeating her ex and rival candidate Troy (Brandon Bell) – a less confrontational figure now with a white girlfriend – she vows to fight a proposed randomisation of housing act which would affect their all-black residency. Blogger Coleandra (Teyonah Parris) is green with envy at Samantha’s rise in fame (measured by YouTube subscribers), whereas gay journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is indifferent – but happy to be sent to report the story for the university newspaper’s historically white editorial team.Simien is evidently bursting at the opportunity to express his ideas, comedic one-liners and political riffs. Each scene is packed with dovetailing subplots as each character battles to have a unique voice in an atmosphere where some believe – or willingly pretend – that racism no longer exists. The narrative messiness reflects the spiralling confusion over a post-Obama society that allows a symbol in racial acceptance, without necessarily the acceptance itself. When seeking an authoritative voice, it’s a deliberately provocative radio show in which Samantha seeks revenge for a lifetime of being pigeonholed. “Dear white people,” she opines, “the number of black friends you need to not be racist has risen to two.”Dear White People doesn’t lecture the viewer – despite the second-person title – which makes for a vibrant multi-strand piece that instigates open discussion. The ramshackle structure is at least held together by a climax at the aforementioned party in which white students believe it’s their right to dress up in blackface. (If you’re wondering, the script directly mentions Do the Right Thing.) There are numerous day-to-day compromises to be made about being a “black face in a white space”, right down to seemingly minor fibs like Samantha hiding her preference for Ingmar Bergman over Spike Lee. To those who don’t understand, it’s just a party outfit. If this were a TV pilot, you’d be excited about the series up ahead. At it is, the 108 minutes will do for now.’Dear White People’ is playing London Film Festival 2014 as part of the Laugh strand. Ticket information can be found here.