A real-life campus trend became the springboard for “Dear White People.” Dartmouth had its “Crips and Bloods” kegger, the University of California, San Diego, a “Compton Cookout” — racist theme parties that were quickly denounced.
This indie comedy/drama, which received a special jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, mines several such incidents for some comedy and social commentary. But despite its provocative title, the story is so overstuffed it loses impact.
Prestigious Winchester University serves as the fictional campus. Its Latin motto, “Nosce te Ipsum,” translates to one of the movie’s major themes: “Know thyself.”
Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) hosts a radio show with the same title as the movie. She loves to dispense “fight the power” advice, such as, “Dear white people: The minimum number of black friends to constitute not being racist has been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count.”
Sam’s lip-service militancy takes concrete shape when she runs for head of house against the incumbent Troy (Brandon Bell), mainly on the issue of a traditionally black dorm that has begun randomizing room assignments. Troy, the handsome son of the dean (Dennis Haysbert), welcomes the assimilation. Sam believes it’s one more example of whites usurping and diluting black culture.
Meanwhile, others take sides in the contest. Coco (Teyonah Parris) tries to one-up the social media popularity of Sam’s show, careful to distance herself from her less-than-Ivy League upbringing.
Lionel (Tyler James Williams) uses the controversy to become the lone black student at the school paper — a staff the editor tells him “is whiter than Michael Jackson’s kids.” Lionel may sport a retro Afro that’s “like a black hole for white people’s fingers,” but he’s a total outcast among his own. The shy, gay nerd prefers listening to Mumford & Sons and watching Robert Altman movies.
At least a dozen other characters and subplots (such as a reality TV show casting around campus) further clutter filmmaker Justin Simien’s crowdfunded debut. Too bad, because “Dear White People” demonstrates plenty of earnest, insider authenticity.
Simien brings up thought-provoking points. (The story is inspired by his experiences at Chapman University in California.) He assembles a fine cast — the subtle Williams and resolute, sensitive Thompson are particularly strong. It’s also shot, edited and, at least from a dialogue standpoint, written well.
It’s Simien’s overall structure that proves muddy. Often bloated. Borderline dramatically inert at spots. Like a lot of first-time efforts, the film falls into the “more admirable than entertaining” category.
Of course, you can say the same about a lot of Altman movies.
One of the best bits incorporates a class screening of Sam’s short film “Rebirth of a Nation.” It’s shot like a sepia silent, with students wearing “white face” while bemoaning the supposed evils of the Obama administration.
Her predominantly Caucasian classmates don’t think much of the piece, including Sam’s white boyfriend (Justin Dobies), who says, “It’s a little self-congratulatory. Light on story. Frankly, thematically dubious.”
Can’t help wondering if the clever Simien inserted that line as a pre-emptive strike against critical response to his own movie. Also can’t help wondering if the criticism is right on.
(At Independence, Palace, Town Center and Ward Parkway.)
‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’
Rated R | Time: 1:48
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