Monday, October 27, 2014

New movie review: Dear White People

Tessa Thompson (center) stars as Sam White in Justin Simien's Dear White People.

It is provocative. It is a discussion starter. It is an important topic. It means well – but the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, has all the makings of a message film filtered through the sensibilities of a satirical comedy-drama. That it mostly succeeds at comedy and mostly fails at drama is beside the point. The goal of this feature is to hold a mirror up to the culture and show us where we have gone wrong. What appears in the reflection will say more about the viewer than the film.

Race remains a lightning-rod issue in all corners of society. Polite conversation can devolve into uninformed political rhetoric and outright anger just by bringing race into the discussion. Most people would rather avoid the topic altogether and tuck it away with their talking points about religion and politics until they find like-minded folks with whom they can just nod their heads.

This is particularly true if you find yourself among the white people in “mixed” company, whatever that means anymore. Maybe you try to steer the conversation away from controversy or just bite your tongue altogether. God forbid you should offend someone or, worse, be called a racist. Do you know who is most afraid of being labeled racist? Racists.

Dialogue is good. Discussion is good. Hell yes, debate is good. In one of Dear White People’s many “that is so true” moments, firebrand radio host Sam White, played by Tessa Thompson, announces on her show that white people who use the term “African American” because they are afraid of saying “black” should just go ahead and say “nigger” because that is what they want to say anyway.

The moment is played for laughs but is in reality an instance of bracing honesty. This film is speaking to a generation of 18- to 25-year-olds who want to ignore race, move past it, and pretend they do not see color. Their intentions are good, but those road signs you see point directly to hell. We will not get past issues by claiming we are above them. We will get past them by diving down into the mud and fighting. Controversy should be courted and confronted.

In this respect, Dear White People is a noble and necessary effort. Any film that fosters intelligent debate among people with differing views should be seen far and wide; however, I cannot say the conversations this film starts will necessarily be intelligent. The problem lies in the prevalence of the aforementioned “that is so true” moments, which are this film’s stock-in-trade.

It bears repeating that race is a tough topic to tackle on film. Most people just do not want to hear it, and when they do, it makes them defensive. “I would never say that” or “I could never do something like that” are the familiar refrains of moviegoers confronted with a reality they hoped not to acknowledge, but the oft-ignored fact is: It does not matter what you would do or have done; all that matters is that it is done.

Remember, we are living in the time of President Barack Obama and a generation of teenagers and young adults who vowed to be better about these kinds of things, definitely better than their parents’ generation and the generations before that. The president of the fictional Ivy League university featured in Dear White People even says at one point, “Racism is over.” And would you believe there are people, smart people, who believe this to be true?

The problem with Dear White People’s satirical approach to storytelling is that it gives audience members permission to laugh at themselves. Rather than challenge viewers to think critically about the roles they play in oppression, racism, and inequality, it lets them off the hook with its artifice of humor. As a result, people are most likely to leave the theater joking with their friends about how “that is so true,” sharing a chuckle, and wondering what they are going to get for dinner.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the film is that Simien tries to cram too much story and too many characters into an already bloated hour and 50-minute runtime. The radio host at the center of everything is Thompson's lived-in take on a mixed-race woman trying to embrace her essential blackness. There is Tyler James Williams as Lionel Higgins, whose identity crisis comes from the fact that he does not conform to typical black stereotypes. Kyle Gallner plays Kurt Fletcher, whose successful father bullies him into actively avoiding those same stereotypes. And Teyonah Parris is Colandrea “Coco” Conners, who wants notoriety and recognition any way she can get it.

Those are just the main characters. There are about a half-dozen side characters whose stories we are asked to follow and concern ourselves with, as well as a complex and contradictory web of motivations for all of them. Streamlining would have done Simien’s film a world of good. For all the interlocking plots and showy storytelling devices, the central theme of the movie boils down to this: How can a black person be the most honest version of himself or herself in a predominantly white culture?

It is a powerful thesis question, enough for a whole series of films on the black experience in America. That would be an exciting project, something I would be first in line for every time. Instead, Simien gives us a picture with so much to say that it is constantly tripping over its tongue trying to get it all out. I am glad this film was made. I am energized by the idea that people may ask questions about their prejudices and the prejudice they see. But Dear White People is better in its design than its execution, and I am sad to report this probably will not be the film that exposes the cracks in the broken veneer of social harmony.

Having already discussed movies like Pride and Gone Girl in this space, it is hard not to think we are in a year of movies with important things to say about the society we have built but with no idea how to get their messages across. They intend to provoke. They intend to start discussions. They intend a lot of good things, but it is not enough. We need to move beyond good intentions and embrace positive actions. If we cannot do that, then I guess I will see you in hell.

See it? Yes.

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