Seems like it has been forever since the last smart, funny comedy about black/white relations dropped. Maybe it has been forever. In any case, Dear White People plays like an irreverent breath of fresh air, just in time to save us from yet another Tyler Perry mehfest (hey, even the characters in Dear White People take time to poke fun at Perry, so I’m not alone in this).
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune calls the film “slyly provocative,” and that’s as good a description as any, although I’ll go with “sidesplittingly funny” as well, but you’ve got to be up on your modern race relations to get the most out of the in-jokes. Make sure to take a black friend with you for maximum enjoyment. Better yet, take two. If you need some talking points to get them to join you, tell them the film has wracked up a number of festival awards already: the “Directors to Watch” award at the Palms Springs International Film Festival; the Audience Award at the San Francisco International FF; and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Indy cred out the yang, which explains why the film is only showing on 348 screens.
Enjoy the trailer then my 5 things after the jump:
1) Beautiful new black people. Lo and behold, where did these folks come from? Has Hollywood been hiding all the new, young black talent? Or perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention to television? In any case, DWP stars the absolutely stunning Tessa Thompson, a Los Angeles Native who has worked the TV trenches in such shows as Veronica Mars and Grey’s Anatomy. Thompson turns in an outstanding performance a, displaying both inner conflict and outer confidence in a most believable fashion. Another strong performance is turned in by Brandon P. Bell, also better “known” for his roles in TV series (Hollywood Heights, Switched at Birth). Actually, ALL of the performing artists do great work in this film, quite an accomplishment for them and first-time director Justin Simien.
2) The look. Set at a fictitious Ivy League college somewhere in the Northeast, DWP looks great for what has to be a low-budget film. Production designer Bruton Jones (whose credit list includes Underworld and Armageddon) creates a beautiful environment for the shenanigans, and cinematographer Topher Osborn makes the most of his photogenic cast.
3) The plot. College is hard. Getting an education is tough enough, but then there’s the social landscape that has to be negotiated as one comes of age. The conflicting senses of inclusion and alienation are even stronger where there are strong class and race divides thrown in the mix Most college campus comedies ignore this dynamic, going for the low-hanging fruit of frat humor and sexplay. DWP dives right into this sensitive stew, culminating in a worst-of-all-worlds conflict at a misguided hip-hop themed party at the most popular house on the campus.
4) The fish out of water. Tyler James Williams is the guy that really brings the goods and makes this movie as strong as it is. Probably best known for his role in TV’s Everybody Hates Chris, Williams, more than any of the other characters, struggles with finding his place in campus society… as a gay black writer/photographer, he’s shunned by just about everyone, except those who want to use him for one reason or another. It has become cliche to characterize a performance “gutsy” when it involves man-on-man kissing, so I won’t go there, but I will say that William pulls it off without losing the comic edge that permeates this enjoyable film.
5) It’s a wake up call for Spike Lee. Hey Spike, where you been? Loved your Passing Strange and Mike Tyson show, but isn’t it time for you to go back to school and show us again what’s up at the HBCUs? Just saying, ’cause you did it so well in School Daze (1988).
Director Simien has hit a homerun with Dear White People, and it is a minor shame that this film won’t be seen by many people due to the lack of commitment and interest by the nation’s theaters. Sadly, though, those business are correct in assuming that most of this country’s filmgoers will ignore this film, even if it is playing in a theater down the street. Too bad for them.
As far as Visionary or Hack is concerned, though, one good film is not nearly enough to rank, but we welcome Justin Simien to take a seat In the Lobby.