Although Dear White People **** has flaws, you can’t fault the bravery, cool style and searing honesty of Justin Simien’s debut, which won a breakthrough award at the 2014 edition of Sundance.
It’s taken ages for the film to get here, but I’m glad it has done so, allowing us to witness the freshest and most incendiary take on American race relations since Do The Right Thing. Indeed, in the allegedly post-racial age of Obama, it’s as if nobody has dared look at how the gradations and nuances have shifted since Spike Lee lifted the lid with She’s Gotta Have It, She Hate Me and Bamboozled.
Simien’s film is set on a fictional, Ivy League-style college campus (Winchester University) where an unspoken ghettoisation is both taking place and being eroded. The traditionally black hall of residence is at risk of diversifying, but its newly-elected head, bi-racial Samantha White (Tessa Thompson, fabulous, and I hope we see more of her) is intent on keeping it militantly black.
It’s her provocative college radio show that gives the film its title, as she addresses the mike – recalling Pump Up the Volume or Samuel L Jackson’s neighbourhood jock DJ Señor Love Daddy on Radio We Love – and issues instructions on how to view black culture. “Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed in order to not seem racist has just been raised.. to two”; or just: “Dear White People, stop dancing.”
There are other plots interwoven, including a geeky black wannabe journalist called Lionel with a big Afro; the handsome, black preppy Troy ousted as head of house and disappointing his father, the Dean (Dennis Haysbert); ambitious Coco with her weave and her thirst for fame on a reality TV show; plus the hip-hop loving white kids who cannot hope to step through the smouldering racial minefield but who, in their confusion, also think it’s hip and ironic to throw a “Negro-themed” Hallowe’en party, where things get predictably out of hand.
My, this is strong stuff, sometimes really funny, often ferociously angry, always coolly iconoclastic, yet heartfelt, tender and sexy, too.