With black-white relations in the United States at their worst in a decade or more, the smart satire of racial tension by newcomer Justin Simien seems uncannily well timed. The sharply written Dear White People, a Sundance award winner, chronicles the efforts of a group of African American students to negotiate the complexities of campus life at a predominantly white college – one where racial politics are heating up.
The chief agitator at Winchester College is a biracial young woman named Sam White (Tessa Thompson, Selma), a film student and DJ whose radio show Dear White People is full of sly provocations such as announcing that the quota of black friends for any white student who wants to be considered non-racist has just been bumped up from one to two (“and your weed dealer, Tyrone, doesn’t count”). Sam has just won the presidency of the black on-campus residence, ousting the moderate Troy, whose father (Dennis Haysbert, 24) is the campus dean.
Sam represents a faction opposing campus policies that are thought to be undermining black identity. But not all the black students appreciate her strident commentary (one says of Sam, “It’s like Spike Lee and Oprah had some kind of pissed-off baby”). And many of the white students are annoyed with all this black power posturing from the beneficiaries of affirmative action – and none moreso than Kurt, son of the university president and head of the most party-hearty fraternity on campus.
Writer-director Simien is juggling a lot of balls here – Sam and Troy are both dating interracially; a black woman who hopes to get hired for a reality TV show is cynically manipulating events on campus; there’s an ongoing power struggle between the black dean and the college’s white president; and a gay black man, a double outsider, is getting cozy with the white-dominated campus paper. All these subplots come crashing together when Kurt’s bad-boy fraternity decides that this year’s theme for their traditionally epic Halloween party is “bring out your inner black,” a showcase of crude racial stereotypes. Let’s just say the party is a riot – one with unintended consequences.
People is a savvy, cleverly constructed, and even-handed satire, with both sides getting spanked for bad behaviour. And Simien is sensitive to the emotional nuances of his characters as much as he is ready to mock their use of overblown rhetoric and pretentious academic jargon to “deconstruct” the post-modern world. This is an auspicious debut from a confident and clear-eyed writer-director.
(NOTE: Plays Jan 27-29 at UVic’s Cinecenta)
Dear White People
Stars Tessa Thompson, Dennis Haysbert, Tyler James Williams
Directed by newcomer Justin Simien
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