Saturday, January 02, 2016

Dear White People

Written and directed by Justin Simien, Dear White People is the story of a group of African-American Ivy League college students who deal with escalating racial tension in their school. The film is a dramatic satire that explores the world of racism from the perspective of African-Americans who deal with stereotypes and what is expected from them as a race. Starring Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Malcolm Barrett, and Dennis Haysbert. Dear White People is a provocative yet witty film from Justin Simien.

Set in the fictional Winchester University, the film revolves the life of students at this Ivy League college where a young woman runs a radio show that criticizes racism and related issues at the school as she gets into some trouble following an election that she won to rule one of its houses. It’s a film that depicts the life of various individuals at this prestigious school led by Sam White (Tessa Thompson) who runs a radio program called Dear White People and has published a book. Others include a former boyfriend in Troy (Brandon Bell) who is the dean’s son as he is given opportunities many could dream but feels conflicted as he wants to write jokes while a young woman named Coco (Teyonah Parris) is using her video blog in the hopes to become a TV star. Another student who gets lost in the shuffle in his attempts to find a role is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who is a journalist major that is asked to write a story about the racial tension.

The film’s screenplay does revolve into a party that would set things off yet much of the narrative revolves around these events before this infamous party and the brewing tension that emerges. Notably as writer/director Justin Simien also create some contradictions where Sam is someone that is appalled by some of the actions of white people at the school and their claims that they’re not racist yet she is sleeping with a white TA named Gabe (Justin Dobies). Troy is dating the school president’s daughter who is white as she has a brother named Kurt (Kyle Gallner) who runs a fraternity house and a school paper as he is also racist though he denies it. The first act is about Sam winning the election and the trouble it has where some like Coco and Kurt rebel the ruling with the former having issue with Sam who feels is taking up all of the attention from a TV producer that she is trying to hook up with. The second act plays into the brewing tension as well as Troy’s attempt to be part of Kurt’s club as well as Coco getting Kurt ideas for the annual Halloween party.

The third act doesn’t just play into the party but moments where characters ponder where they’re going as well as question themselves as African-Americans with even Sam questioning herself in her activism. Especially as she confronts the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert) about this upcoming party that Kurt is holding where it plays into the idea of racism. Yet, there are some personal elements that Sam faces which would only add more questions about herself as well as an encounter between Troy and Lionel at another party where it becomes clear that the two are the same despite their social differences.

Simien’s direction is quite simple in terms of the compositions he creates as well as the setting. Yet, it has an edge to it in terms of how it confronts the idea of racism not just from an African-American perspective but also the perspective of other races. Notably as Simien plays into the stereotypes of what African-Americans like and such which includes a scene where Sam and her friends go to a movie theater asking them what is playing aside from films from Tyler Perry, films that feature blatant African-American stereotypes, and films starring rappers. It also play into what African-Americans don’t want to be but they often fall into certain tropes that is expected of them. Simien’s usage of close-ups and medium shots add to the drama as well as some of the humor. Even in some wide shots which is evident in the third act where Troy learns he has to share a room with Lionel who had been shifted from one home to another.

It adds to these dramatic textures where it breaks down the stereotypes while adding some humor as it relates to a lone Asian who is part of the group of African-American activists. While much of the film is shot on location in Minnesota, Simien does make it feel like it is shot in any kind of school which definitely plays into a world where white culture is dominant. The film’s climatic party is the tipping point of what is happening where it questions not just racism but also why this particular theme for the party. Yet, there are those who don’t see things just as it is but are unaware of the consequences of these events as the final credits reveal some of the dark realities of what goes on in the world of college campuses. Overall, Simien creates a very compelling yet humorous film about life at an Ivy League school from the perspective of African-Americans.

Cinematographer Topher Osborn does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography from the low-key yet dark look of some of the daytime interior/exterior scenes as well as some lighting for scenes at night including the party. Editor Phillip J. Bartel does nice work with the editing as it‘s mostly straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the humor and drama. Production designer Bruton Jones, with set decorator Melissa Pritchett and art director Cheri Anderson, does brilliant work with the set design from the school halls, the fraternity houses, and some of the exterior settings where the students frequent.

Costume designer Toye Adedipe does terrific work with the costumes as it range from casual with most of the students to the more stylish look of Sam. Sound designer Glenn T. Morgan does superb work with the sound to play into the atmosphere of the school halls and dining rooms as well as some of the parties that go on at the campus. The film’s music by Kathryn Bostic is wonderful for its mixture of hip-hop and ambient music to play into the world of college while music supervisor Paul Stewart brings in a mix of hip-hop, electronic music, and some classical music to play into some of the humor and drama that occurs in the film.

The casting by Kim Coleman is fantastic as it features some notable small roles from Brandon Alter as one of the school’s newspaper editors in George, Kate Gaulke as George’s aide Annie, Justin Dobies as Sam’s white lover Gabe, Naomi Ko as the Asian activist Sungmi, Brittany Curran as Troy’s white girlfriend Sofia who is wondering what he’s doing in the bathroom, and Peter Syvertsen as the school president who is also the father of Sofia and Kurt. Marque Richardson is terrific as Sam’s fellow activist friend Reggie who has feelings for Sam and is willing to help her. Malcolm Barrett is excellent as Helmut West as a reality TV producer whom Coco is trying to impress as he ponders about making a TV show about the school. Dennis Haysbert is superb as the dean who is also Troy’s father as he deals with the chaos that is happening in the school as well as trying to get his son on the right path.

Kyle Gallner is brilliant as Kurt as the president’s son who runs a fraternity and a publication as he tries to create the ultimate party while making Troy feel uncomfortable and antagonizing Sam. Brandon Bell is amazing as Troy as the dean’s son who was once a campus leader as he copes with the many expectations around him as well as the conflicts to conform as he hides a secret that could threaten his future. Teyonah Parris is wonderful as Coco as a young woman who dislikes Sam’s activism about what it means to be black as she tries to define herself where she gives Kurt an idea that she would later regret. Tyler James Williams is remarkable as Lionel as a gay journalist student who finds himself out of step with everyone as he’s constantly harassed by Kurt and wondering what he should do as a journalist. Finally, there’s Tessa Thompson in an incredible performance as Sam as this young film student who speaks out against everything around her as she later becomes conflicted when things become personal as it’s a very fiery and riveting performance.

Dear White People is a phenomenal film from Justin Simien. With a great cast and themes that manage to be very provoking as well as raise a lot of questions. It’s a film that is very engaging but also has some humor that isn’t afraid to showcase the world of racism and identity. In the end, Dear White People is a sensational film from Justin Simien.

© thevoid99 2016


Dell said...

What a wonderful film, this is. So glad you enjoyed it. And Tessa Thompson is amazing in it. This is a movie that gives us much to ponder and works on nearly every level.

thevoid99 said...

It was better than I expected it to be as well as the fact that it says a lot about racism and why things aren't so easy. I was taken aback a bit during the final credits over the fact that some of the things depicted on film really does happen. Then again, I shouldn't be surprised considering how stupid people are becoming.