LOS ANGELES – A cheeky provocation wrapped in a zingy punchline, Justin Simien's "Dear White People" recalls other memorably promising debuts — by filmmakers named Spike, for instance, whether Lee or Jonze. An ambitious satire that questions just how "post-racial" America has become, the film is never at a loss for words, but sometimes confuses galvanizing rhetoric for legitimate deliberation.
At an Ivy League stand-in called Winchester University, black students endure marginalization in both the classroom and campus cultural life, with many finding acceptance at Armstrong/Parker Hall, which has a longstanding tradition of black residents. Biracial media arts major Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) relies on Armstrong/Parker residents as the base of support for her radio show "Dear White People," which frequently finds her breaking down the status of race relations on campus by making pronouncements like "Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two."
Sam shakes up Armstrong/Parker by beating out incumbent (and ex-boyfriend) Troy (Brandon Bell) in the election for house president, quickly assuring other residents that her top priority will be pressuring the university to rescind its "Randomization of Housing Act," which would force Armstrong/Parker to diversify. Her proactive truculence gets the attention of black student reporter Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), who recognizes the potential for a gossipy news story that could raise his profile at the primarily white school paper.
Colandrea "Coco" Conners (Teyonah Parris) also sees an opportunity to take Sam down a few notches while boosting her own profile on her video blog. Despite being the son of the Dean of Students, Troy finds his status severely challenged after his loss to Sam, particularly since he's already held at arm's length by some black students for dating the white daughter of university President Fletcher. Competing with Coco for a coveted spot on the university's prestigious humor magazine, edited by the president's son Kurt (Kyle Gallner), prompts Troy to reprioritize. Meanwhile, Sam and Lionel are both trying to conceal clandestine relationships that could irreparably compromise their public profiles if exposed.
Rivalries and campus tensions reach a boiling point over a race-themed Halloween party sponsored by a white residence hall, which forces all the players to reevaluate where they stand regarding campus race relations. Preempting the debates surrounding a disturbing rash of race-related partying incidents in recent years at universities nationwide to shift the balance of power back to black perspectives, Simien positions his characters to contend with a nonstop barrage of hot-button cultural issues. Self-important dialogue and schematic plotting suggest that their purpose is less self-actualization than serving Simien's inclination to provoke unease and challenge conventions of racial identity. Whichever the case, his discerning script is rife with frequently amusing situations, although this is much more a comedy of words than actions.
As a result, the cast has abundant opportunity to flex their range, led by Thompson's conflicted student activist, which she pulls off with practiced composure. Williams manages to consistently dial up Lionel's nervousness and bewilderment throughout the film to a point of heightened tension that necessitates decisive resolution. As lovers, then rivals who must eventually seek mutual accommodation, Parris and Bell understand that for Coco and Troy, discovering humility is just the beginning of these characters' realigned journeys.
Simien intensifies the impact of both action and dialogue with a self-reflexive directorial style that creates a marginally heightened sense of reality, revealing more about characters' motivations than would conventionally be expected. Whether this type of perspective is essential to telling the story or constitutes more of an attention-grabbing embellishment may depend more on personal taste than objective judgment.
"Dear White People," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language, sexual content and drug use." Running time: 100 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.