December 1, 2014

Review: Race 101 – 'Dear White People' is for Everyone

Dear White People

Dear Black People is a bold, thoughtful, and subversively hilarious riff on race issues in contemporary America. First time filmmaker Justin Simien frames the tension of race relations through a prestigious Ivy League campus and its traditionally black students against the privileged white ones. While using universal and very American themes of racism, Simien dissects societal labels and identities cemented through youth with sophisticated satire.

Simien wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve with bold references to everything from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry as his talented and diverse cast of young African-American actors take different yet fluid ideologies on race. The dialogue and situational comedy is sharp and audacious where character takedowns and big speeches build on each other to navigate the depth and history of institutional prejudice.

At the core of the film are Tessa Thompson, a mixed raced student who tries to avoid the label of an angry black woman yet still spews stark one-liners about white privilege, and Tyler James Williams, a gay, black loner and outcast who doesn't quite belong to any group. Dear White People wisely avoids pitting its black and white characters directly against each other as divisions and other labels cause riffs and conflicts within their communities.

The film is smart and timely in its exploration of class and race in America. The stage-like construction and balance of characters gets muddled at times with interconnected drama and motives, but Dear Black People succeeds in its honest themes of human struggle and social criticism. Simien injects social media and contemporary narrative devices to richly express the fallacy of equality in society and education. It's an impressive debut for a writer/director as Simien juggles hot topics of race and power elegantly and humorously.

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