The film on race relations Spike Lee wishes he could make
The biggest problems with both Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s two biggest forays into the realm of racial issues, both suffered from the same problem. They both had about an hour of material you could excise from them and not change anything about either film. Mookie and Pino’s argument over race leading into an extended montage of racial slurs from the former, and Lee’s sermon on the importance of Malcolm X on a historical basis in the latter, add significant time onto films that genuinely didn’t need or warrant them. Neither of those moments led to anything monumental for the film; they wind up being moments where you look at your watch and wonder how much more of this film is left.
Dear White People doesn’t have that time killing moment … and all these years later this is the time of film Spike Lee wishes he could’ve made as it’s far superior to either of his films. Justin Simien, in his feature length debut, has managed to make the sort of film that Lee wishes he could: a nuanced treatise on the nature of race relations among the youth.
Simien takes his story to a fictional Ivy League college where we focus on the interconnected lives of a handful of students. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a geeky kid from the suburbs with no strong connection to the traditional African-American community. He likes Mumford & Sons and Robert Altman movies, among other things, and struggles to fit in everywhere he goes. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an interracial rabble rouser, noteworthy for her truth to power style radio/internet show “Dear White People” … and secretly having a relationship with a white man (Justin Dobies). Colandrea (Teyonah Parris) is from the South Side of Chicago but wants nothing to do with her roots, going by “Coco” and trying her best to attract white men. Reggie (Brandon P Bell) is the All-American prodigal son of the Dean (Dennis Haysbert) who isn’t sure if he wants the life he and his father have strategically plotted out for him.
Simien lines up all of these stories and interconnects them in flashback form from a “race riot” that occurred at a party from a fraternity due to their profound lack of sensitivity in that manner. We see the interconnected stories of all four main characters as we progress and Simien gives us an interesting take on racial relations among the millennial generation. This isn’t heavy handed, either, but a character based study on the African-American experience in modern academia. And Simien walks that fine line between satire and dark comedy very effectively, melding strong characters with a story that’s fairly universal in scope on the nature of alienation and the pressures of youth.
What drives the film, however, is that the fairly unknown cast assembled (Dennis Haysbert is easily the most recognizable face in the crowd for what’s a fairly small part) is absolutely spot on. Simien has assembled a young, almost age appropriate cast for a college film of relative unknowns and winds up picking every part perfectly.
The film’s driving performance is from Tessa Thompson as the black radical Sam. This is a very difficult character to pull off without coming off as parody; it’s the sort of character that Spike Lee would turn up the volume on so that people would think he’s being profound when instead he’s just being obnoxious. Sam is a conflicted woman trying to find her place, embracing the sort of radicalism that backfires in her face when she winds up winning an election she never thought she’d be competitive in to be leader of her dorm. Thompson has a profound, nuanced performance that takes would could be a character killer in less nuanced hands and brings out a sympathy to her that many directors (and actresses) and couldn’t.
The character is certain in public of everything she believes in, the sort of fireball throwing anarchist that agitates the elites and finds ears among the masses … but in private is just as confused about her life as any other college student. It’s a terrific performance and one of the best of the year; she’ll be the name that most likely is bandied about as the best performance that gets overlooked by the major awards circuit.
Dear White People is the sort of film that feel subversive because of its title but it’s much different than that. It’s a character study done profoundly well and one of the best films of the year.
Writer/Director: Justin Simien Notable Cast: Tyler James Williams, Dennis Haysbert, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Brittany Curran, Teyonah Parris