“Dear white people,” begins Dear White People, rewinding back five weeks from an explosive prologue to the moment the fuse is lit. The words, spoken into a microphone, waft over the fictional Ivy League campus of Winchester University, turning heads and getting goads. Every week, Sam White (Tessa Thompson) takes to the college-radio airwaves to dole out some sardonic wisdom to her predominately Caucasian classmates; this week, for example, she instructs that “the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” Before she’s a character, Sam is just a mouthpiece—a sharp-tongued message delivery system—and her pointed diatribes are designed to provoke not just her listeners, but the audience too. Mission accomplished.
Still, Sam is a character, or she becomes one anyway, and the nifty trick of Dear White People is that it manages to keep up its rapid-fire barrage of social criticism—ceaselessly lobbing cherry bombs at the notion that race is no longer an issue in America—while also allowing its ensemble to deepen into complicated, conflicted people. Justin Simien, making his feature debut as writer and director, packs just about every scene with sidelong jabs and casual insight, performing such public services as carefully explaining the difference between racism and prejudice. Some of the bits are inspired, as when Sam walks an acquaintance through the lose-lose dilemma of how to tip a racist waitress. Other times, the dialogue sags a little with overwritten self-importance. There’s a reason, though, that some of it sounds rehearsed: Constantly put on the defensive by their insensitive peers, Simien’s black characters choose their words carefully, as though preparing for a daily debate.
A campus comedy with more on its mind than panty raids and keg parties, Dear White People pivots around administrative attempts to randomize student housing—a veiled attack on the Armstrong/Parker House, whose residents are all black. Each of the main characters grapples with the burden of how they’re expected to look, talk, and act. Sam, the nominal heroine, accepts a leadership position she doesn’t covet, lamenting her role as the resident “angry black woman” and concealing her relationship with a white T.A. (Justin Dobies). At the request of his father, who’s also the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert), house president Troy (Brandon P Bell) dates the white daughter (Brittany Curran) of the college’s president (Peter Syvertsen); he also attempts to get in with her spoiled, racist brother, Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who runs the university’s National Lampoon-style humor magazine. There’s Coco (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris), from the south side of Chicago, who’s told by a reality-TV producer that she’s not black enough for primetime, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), who’s shy and gay, and fits in neither with the black students nor the white ones.
Some of these characters might seem like abstract types, designed to illustrate a particular satirical point or problem, were it not for the actors playing them. Simien has assembled a uniformly outstanding cast. Thompson, who had recurring roles on Copper and Veronica Mars, delivers her numerous speeches with cutting conviction, while also revealing Sam’s hidden vulnerabilities. And Williams, best known for starring in Everybody Hates Chris, proves that his underdog talents didn’t go the way of his adolescence. Only the film’s villains flirt with caricature—though anyone who thinks that Gallner’s privileged prick is an exaggerated straw man should stick around for the end credits, adorned as they are with photos of actual college students throwing blackface parties, and as recently as last year.
Identity is the film’s true subject: As much as he pokes fun at the foibles of a privileged white America, Simien is more interested in the ways his protagonists conform, or refuse to conform, to society’s idea of them. As a pure comedy, Dear White People is a little clumsier, sometimes confusing pop-culture namedropping for jokes. But some of the references serve a greater purpose. More than once is Kanye West mentioned; the rapper’s history of blending social critique and self-examination marks him as a potential creative inspiration. Likewise, while a rant against Tyler Perry is a little fish-in-the-barrel easy, the way it’s delivered—straight into the camera, by an impassioned group—reveals another influence: Spike Lee, who’s alluded to both verbally and stylistically. When Sam leans into the mic to spit truth to power (and Ruth?), it’s easy to think of Samuel L. Jackson doing the same 25 years ago. And there are echoes of a trash can meeting a storefront window in Lionel’s destruction of a speaker system, his belated but cathartic act of rebellion. If Dear White People is Simien’s School Daze, complete with academic setting and DIY scrappiness, does that mean he has a Do The Right Thing in him, too?