'Dear White People' proves cinema is starved for socially relevant comedy

Dear White People | B+

It's sad to think that in the quarter century since Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing came out, Hollywood has done little to advance the conversation of race that his bold, angry, and startlingly funny film started back in 1989. For a brief moment, John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) seemed poised to extend that discussion with 1995's Higher Learning and 1997's Rosewood. Unfortunately, for all their provocations, both films lacked the focus and artistry necessary to make a substantial impact. Since then, Singleton's career has been oriented more toward urban action films (Shaft, Four Brothers, 2 Fast 2 Furious).

Even the ever-irascible Lee, who still snarls with impish spite in interviews, has spent the last decade struggling to make an artistic impact with disappointing personal projects (Red Hook Summer, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), little-seen documentaries (If God Is Willing Da Creek Don't Rise, When the Levees Broke, Bad 25) and Hollywood misfires (Oldboy, Miracle at St. Anna).

Honestly, if you want to see anything at the multiplex that even hints at the modern black American experience, you need to catch the latest Tyler Perry film. And while a thoughtful discussion of Perry's films is long overdue, suffice to say that there's a difference between his work and the early 1990s heyday of Lee's Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, or even Clockers.

In fact, scorn for Perry's work is just one of the many incisive and laugh-out-loud jokes debut writer director Justin Simien delivers in Dear White People, the first film in a long time that dares to confront our supposedly post-racial America.

With School Daze as his obvious inspiration, Simien has set his sights on the fictional Ivy League-style college campus of Winchester University, where privileged white kids mostly don't mix with their fellow black collegians. A new randomized housing policy, however, threatens a traditionally black residence hall, pitting the various factions (presenting almost every permutation of black society) against one another.

Front and center is Samantha (fiery Tessa Thompson), a militant film student who makes white-face versions of The Birth of a Nation and hosts a hilariously controversial campus radio show called "Dear White People." Struggling to separate her contradictory positions and poses, she faces off against her nemesis, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the by-the-book striver with a white girlfriend and an equally ambitious father (Dennis Haysbert), who happens to be the dean of the school. Meanwhile, nerdy journalist-wannabe Lionel (Tyler James Williams) seeks a place where his homosexuality and huge-ass 'fro will be properly appreciated. Beautiful, weave-wearing Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is also looking to make her mark, as she schemes to land a gig on reality TV by cozying up to troublemaker Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the white editor of the campus humor magazine and son of the university's president.

As you can tell, the cast is a bit overcrowded — every character gets a say, and none are quite what they seem — and Simien is biting off far more than he can chew as Dear White People piles on jokes, half-formed subplots, meta-commentary on black culture (the racist undertones of both Gremlins is a particularly ripe target), stabs at media and capitalism, and the subtleties of racism, representation, and class. You'd think a guy who used to work in Paramount's publicity department would know a thing or two about focusing his message.

But while Simien's dialogue can be self-consciously clever, there's real wit and wisdom on hand. His attractive cast of unknowns deliver their punchlines with panache, while never losing sight of the thesis that nobody fits neatly under any one label. Dear White People approaches its provocative subject matter with both good humor and good sense, writing conflicted characters that are as engaging as they are flawed. It's a comedy that expresses real thoughtfulness and emotion. More real, in fact, than the caricatures in Lee's scattered but passionate School Daze.

That said, Simien isn't half the stylist Spike Lee is, taking an almost Altmanesque approach to his walk-and-talk compositions. The filmmaking is professional and diligent, but far from accomplished, sorely lacking the provocative energy of its ideas.

Satire is hard. Satire that is both funny and able to preach to more than just the choir is so rare a thing that whole nations could make it a standard of currency. That Dear White People comes as close as it does to provocative persuasion is either a testament to Justin Simien's talents or an indication of how starved cinema is for intelligent, socially relevant comedy.

Dear White People opens Friday, October 24. It's rated R and has a run time of 108 minutes.

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