Belly laughs and gut punches…
Opening with national newscasters reporting on a riot at the prestigious Winchester University, where an end-of-term party encouraged white students to “liberate your inner negro”, Justin Simien’s savagely smart, incendiary, responsible satire then rewinds five weeks to track the escalating events leading up to the powder-keg spree.
The cast of characters is sizeable and tangled, though the four principal players are Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), head of an historically all-black residence; militant activist Sam White (Tessa Thompson), running against Troy in the house election and host of the titular radio talkshow (“Dear White People… stop dancing”); CoCo Conners (Teyonah Parris), determined to elevate her social position and to be chosen, over Sam, as the star of a reality TV show; and shy misfit Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay student with a huge afro.
Clashing ideas and ideals, these four African-Americans, further prodded by the white staff of satirical campus magazine Pastiche, anchor Simien’s microcosmic study of black identity and race relations in today’s America.
Comprised of titled chapters, meticulous compositions, impossibly articulate dialogue, neat, patterned plotting and judicious use of 'Swan Lake' and 'Fur Elise' on the soundtrack, Dear White People might be a little too arch and airless for some.
But it’s this formal rigour, the precise presentation of a hermetic world, which brings the satire into scalpel-sharp focus, allowing for the dense packaging of ideas and theories, jests and jibes, attacks and counterattacks.
No stereotype is left unturned, with Siemens providing unexpected twists and layers to subvert preconceptions, while the US media is surgically scorched for prescribing narrow notions of identity and homogenised images that seek to turn African-American culture into commodities.
This is high-altitude satire that dares to press hot buttons while targeting and empathising with all, black and white. Some of the potshots are easy (Tarantino and Tyler Perry), some have the ring of a Kevin Smith-style pop-culture monologue (reading Gremlins as white suburbia’s fear of blacks – the offending invaders talk slang, love fried chicken and hate to get their hair wet) and some thornily complex.
All, however, hit squarely home, delivered with real quality by a fresh-faced cast that’s overseen by Dennis Haysbert as Winchester’s dean. As debuts go, Dear White People is, for all sorts of reasons, a genuine attention grabber. Be sure to give it yours.