As its title suggests, Dear White People is a statement as much as a film, tackling modern-day race relations. Justin Simien’s debut feature stages its satirical drama in Winchester University, a fictional American college where residential colleges are divided – and, ultimately, fractured – along race lines.
Early on I fretted that its insistence on existing as a statement might harm its success as a film, with its characters – a firebrand DJ (Tessa Thompson), a would-be politician (Brandon Bell) and a publicity-hungry vlogger (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris) – introduced as mouthpieces for distinct political viewpoints. But as it progresses, these characters’ complexities are revealed, their posturing equal parts performed and embodied; Crash this ain’t.
Simien alternates between artificial, planimetric framing and looser compositions to accentuate the conflict created by societal expectations. One senses his sympathies lie with Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay black nerd whose love of Star Trek, Mumford & Sons and Robert Altman movies leave him feeling adrift from the college’s black community.
Dear White People is an impressive debut, thoughtfully conceived and sharply executed. It doesn’t quite sell the balance between satire and drama and it’s challenging rather than provocative, but it augurs well for Simien’s directorial career.