Wrestling With Race

"Dear White People" is one of the best directorial debuts in years

Writer/director Justin Simien makes a memorable debut with "Dear White People," as good a comedic film about race relations that American cinema has seen the last 25 years.

Set in the fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college of Winchester University, the movie recalls the weeks leading up to a "race party" thrown by a white fraternity encouraging attendees to show up in black face. It's a movie where the laughs come with a lot of stank on them, a biting, sometimes nasty satire that can never be accused of playing things safe.

The film is named after a college radio show emceed by black female student Sam White (the mesmerizing Tessa Thompson). White plays music, occasionally speaking over the tunes with stinging observations about black and white student interactions.

Sam frequently butts heads with white guy Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of the school president. She's a media major who, quite convincingly, argues "Gremlins" is about suburban white fear of black culture with her professor. Fellow students suggest she might be the pissed off baby of Spike Lee and Oprah.

Sporting a massive, epic Afro that white people can't help but run their fingers through, black and gay Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is trying to figure out his place on the campus and in society. He's an undeclared major, but finds himself gravitating towards journalistic endeavors.

Higgins winds up being the film's calm voice of reason until the race party (loosely inspired by the infamous, 2010 "Compton Cookout" at UCSD) causes him to rise up and break shit. The film deals with incendiary topics but always remains relatively good-natured, even when tensions hit a fever pitch.

As the son of Dean Fairbanks (an appropriately smug Dennis Haysbert), Brandon P. Bell resonates as a politically active student with an attachment to weed and multiple romantic entanglements. Teyonah Parris occupies perhaps the film's least interesting character as Colandrea "Coco" Conners, a reality TV wannabe. Her subplot represents perhaps one subplot too many.

Simien is no punch-puller, throwing caustic barbs at Tyler Perry, reality TV, Cosby and Tarantino. Sam's radio show observation on why white people opt for the term African-American is a screamer. Simien is far more successful with his satire than he is with the film's romantic relationships, which feel a little false and forced at times. With dialogue this sharp, I can forgive a few boring scenes with people lacking any real chemistry.

Thompson, who has been acting for about a decade, is true contender for breakout performer of the year. Her work here is soon to be followed by a role in "Selma," the Martin Luther King biopic due to be released Christmas Day. Williams, who played the young Chris Rock on TV's "Everybody Hates Chris" has gotten the role to propel is film career five years after his show went off the air. Gallner, one of the unfortunate dudes seeking sex in Kevin Smith's "Red State," takes the asshole role and runs with it.

The comparisons and allegiances to Spike Lee films of the past are obvious being that Simien's screenplay not only directly mentions "Do the Right Thing," but recreates the "arms in the air" moment that punctuated the classic "sneaker scuffing" scene. The radio show framing device also reminds of "...Thing," while the setting at a fictional college recalls "School Daze" (although I didn't catch anybody doing "Da Butt").

"Dear White People" might not hit the mark with every observation, but it hits a lot more than it misses. It takes a lot of big risks, and it wins on many fronts. It also, I suspect, will keep a lot of white fingers out of big Afros.

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