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Dear White People

It’s really a thrill to see a film this sharp, concerning the subject of race, get a decent amount of distribution. On the other hand, it’s sobering (but expected) that barely anyone is bothering to see it. And the racial polarization in the U.S. will only continue, if people continue to turn a blind eye. It wasn’t always this way. For instance, Spike Lee’s name has come up frequently when I’ve read about “Dear White People”, even though he has nothing to do with the film whatsoever. But the comparisons to a pair of early Spike Lee joints are perfectly apt.

“School Daze”, a 1988 Lee musical set at an all-black college, is one of the examples. And 1989’s masterful “Do the Right Thing” is the other. “School Daze” pulled down about 15 million in 1988, which would translate into about twice that amount in 2014 dollars. “Do the Right Thing” grossed over 37 million worldwide in 1989. “Dear White People” has garnered under three million, so far. I doubt it will break five. So much for progress.

As I previewed on this blog almost three weeks ago, “Dear White People” focuses mainly on the lives of African-American students at an Ivy League college. Outnumbered by whites, and with racial tensions already coming to a head, the situation at the college is exacerbated by a group of white students throwing an “African-American themed” party. Riddled with stereotypes and various caricature representations, the gathering rapidly fuels what promises to become a violent confrontation.

“Dear White People” was written and directed by Justin Simien, and it is his feature debut. It’s a very solid start. Mr. Simien has assembled a talented cast, with key roles going to Tessa Thompson as college radio host Samantha “Sam” White, and Tyler James Williams as a brainy, closeted-gay kid named Lionel. They are the standouts, but there’s also fine work from Teyonah Parris as “Coco”, Kyle Gallner as Kurt, and Brandon P. Bell as Troy. And the excellent Dennis Haysbert also appears as Dean Fairbanks.

Honestly, this timely satire misses the mark almost as often as it hits it. But when it does land, the blow is usually quite solid. It’s a bit haphazard, and occasionally guilty of seeming forced, but the climax is dead-on, and the stills presented during the credits will leave you aghast. Do we penalize “Dear White People” for not being as audacious and pointed as Spike lee’s early work? Absolutely not. I understand the comparisons, but Mr. Simien’s approach is far more gentle and optimistic.

What would be great is if works like “Dear White People” became much more prevalent. I am on record as calling Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”, a work of genius. “Dear White People” is not, but the mostly attuned screenplay more than makes up for the occasional lapses. And the promise of Mr. Simien’s accomplishment is that possibly we’ll someday soon have a film of this nature, where an observer doesn’t feel the need to mention Spike Lee at all. I’m impressed by the accomplishment of “Dear White People”. But I’ll  bet Justin Simien’s sophomore effort will be even better.

Grade:  B

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