Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE Review - Zed's take

Directed by: Justin Simien
Written by: Justin Simien
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Dennis Haysbert
Synopsis: The lives of four black students at an Ivy League college converge after controversy breaks out due to an ill-conceived campus Halloween party.

Dear White People,

Please go see this movie. Same goes for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. Not because the movie is some groundbreaking piece of cinema. And it’s not the black man’s answer to “Birth of a Nation” (there is a movie within the movie that addresses that). My clarion call is motivated by the conversation I feel this film will evoke among viewers of all races.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE starts off like many movies set on college campuses. We get a brief overview of the dorms and its inhabitants at Winchester University. PCU, a movie starring a pre-hair plugged Jeremy Piven, immediately came to mind. Each dorm housed a particularly faction, clique, or even race. The message - You are aligned with those you live with, and you don’t mix with others. I hear this is commonplace on a number of college campuses, like a new, coded version of Jim Crow. Sure, all the dorms have five star amenities, but if you want fried chicken, well, that is served in the Armstrong Parker house (aka the “black” house). It is at Armstrong Parker that we meet the militant, outspoken, Sam White. She is a beautiful, quick-witted young woman, whose inspirations I’m guessing include Spike Lee and Huey/Riley Freeman from THE BOONDOCKS. Dear White People is the name of Sam’s college radio show where she drops little bits of condescending advice to white people (“the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two”.) She decides to wants to challenge Troy Fairbanks for “head of house” at Armstrong Parker. Troy is the Barack-ian character, meaning he’s the smartest and most popular black guy on campus, but he secretly smokes weed in his bathroom. Shockingly Sam wins “Head of house”, and begins to use her new position to make waves. Sam implements a new policy that prompts a gong to be sounded anytime an outsider tries to dine at Armstrong Parker, you know, for that dynamite fried chicken. But she has good intentions, too, like trying to petition the Randomization Housing Act, which would basically gentrify the Armstrong Parker house.

So why do I feel everyone should see this movie? Let’s start with the actors. It’s practically an all-black cast, and luckily they left out the gun toting, cross dressing grandmother. Tessa Thompson hits the right note as Sam, the protagonist whose black nationalism comes into question because she is the lighter shade of black. I was glad to see Teyonah Parris (you may know her as Dawn from AMC’s on MAD MEN) get a chance to showcase her talents here as “Coco” Conners, the bougie black girl who needs attention. And Tyler James Williams (EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS) does some interesting things as Lionel Higgins, the gay, black nerd who doesn’t know where he belongs. Never have I seen nuanced black characters like these given adequate screen time. There’s a lot of gold to be mined here. And I applaud director/writer Justin Simien for choosing such engrossing material as his first feature. His dialogue is filled with comedic gems and poignant moments; my favorite involves Sam breaking down the true meaning of racism. In fact, if you just showed people Sam’s Dear White People radio clips, it would do more for race relations than “We Are the World."

Just like PCU, the movie builds up to the big college party, but the motivation here is completely different. The scene is shocking and disgusting, but not gratuitous considering it was inspired by actual events. Like I said, the movie is by no means perfect. There were some subplots that fell flat and Lionel’s afro was a bit heavy handed for me. But none of this overshadowed what I feel the movie was trying to do. Let me stand on my soap box for a minute: As a black man who has lived in a very white America for 30+ years, I have heard some crazy things from white people. Of course there’s the hair conversation. And there was the time when a white girl blatantly said to me “Slavery… like, get over it already”. I could do a one hour comedy special on “Shit White People Say”. But I’ve also played the role of culturally ignorant person. When I first moved to Florida, I assumed all “brown” people were Mexicans. I was soon verbally checked by a Latina woman who corrected me, which prompted me to educate myself on Latin American culture.  So to all my ethnic brethren, the next time a white person asks you an odd question based on your ethnicity, resist the urge to blast them in the face, and use the opportunity to enlighten them. Think Martin, not Malcolm.

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