There have been so many campus comedies pitting some manner of slobs against some manner of snobs that Justin Simien’s Dear White People gets ahead of the game almost instantly. Set at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University, the film takes its title from a radio show hosted by Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who uses the salutation as a preface for informing the many white kids on campus of their race-related transgressions (and also to please stop trying to dance).
Sam lives in a black residence on campus that is about to be “diversified” by the college, and runs against her popular ex-boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) in the election for head of the house, on a platform of opposing the change. Troy also has his eye on a position with Pastiche, Winchester’s humor magazine, run by white child of privilege Kurt (Kyle Gallner — like Thompson, a Veronica Mars alum).
The movie splits off to follow both Sam and Troy, as well as the fame-hungry Coco (Teyonah Parris), as they navigate campus politics and personal identity. Meanwhile, Lionel (Tyler James Williams) experiences a post-racial sort of alienation: as a quiet, nerdy, black, gay guy, he has no single affiliation to claim, and no group is rushing to claim him. He takes a gig writing for a diversity-challenged, lily-white student newspaper; their condescension is the closest thing to open arms he experiences, at least at first.
To be clear, Dear White People is a comedy, albeit a barbed one. Simien employs the comic strategy of mixing characters bearing heavy (almost crippling) self-awareness (like Sam, who has mixed feelings about her designated-radical role) with characters who have very little self-awareness (usually, though not always, the white folks). It’s often more clever than laugh-out-loud funny — Simien’s symmetrical, fixed compositions have a touch of Wes Anderson quasi-formality, but without Anderson’s way of breaking the tableau for big, unexpected laughs — but it’s smart as hell.
Sam and Lionel, who barely interact for much of the movie, are particularly endearing creations. Thompson, previously relegated to bit parts, is commanding as a sharp, socially engaged woman trying to reconcile her ideals with the possibility that before the semester is out, she may fail her classes or acquire a white boyfriend (or at least a sparring partner). Williams, as Lionel, returns actual outsider status to a nerd role. Here, the campus nerd has a big afro that his black classmates sneer at and his white classmates want to touch, and doesn’t feel qualified to say much about black culture when he, as he notes with self-effacement, “listens to Mumford and Sons.” Quietly, he redefines a part that in recent years has come to be played as de facto preppy heroes and/or self-pitying white men.
The most prominent white dude in the movie, Kurt, is one of its few missteps: not in his conception as a cartoonishly entitled and near-evil frat bro (fair enough), but in the positioning of Pastiche as a satirical publication on par with the Harvard Lampoon. Institutional racism doubtless exists at hallowed organizations like the Lampoon (a longtime feeder for shows like The Simpsons and, as Dear White People conspicuously mentions, Saturday Night Live) — and the kind of quasi-enlightened racism that self-styled comedians often pick up in the name of comic outrageousness, would make a terrific satirical target. But Simien goes broader by having the head of the campus’s premiere humor outlet entirely bypass the ability to crack even a functional joke on his way to straight-up hatefulness. (He’s less a smug Colin Jost type than a full-on Family Guy writer in waiting.) That’s the point, of course: Kurt is no more than a frat douche wielding ridiculously specialized on-campus power. But the movie loses opportunities to skewer more insidious forms of injustice along with Kurt’s straight-up idiocy. The movie also relies perhaps too heavily on the literal presence of Kurt and Troy’s fathers — former Winchester classmates who still work together at the college. The relationship makes their initial lack of conflict just as pointed as a traditional rivalry, but adds extra narrative symmetry that the movie doesn’t really require.
But most of the time, Simien’s film works as good-natured provocation, a glimpse into a thorny, hypocritical world often written about but not seen on movie screens quite so often. I overheard an older gentleman at my screening of Dear White People sniff that the characters were all two-dimensional cut-outs. He said this about a movie with black characters not (a) being murdered or (b) directed by Tyler Perry — specifically, as the movie’s credits rolled over pictures of real-life college parties where white students dressed up in, essentially, blackface. What I’m saying is, maybe the Winchester campus is bigger than it looks.