Writer/director Justin Simien makes a memorable debut with Dear White People, perhaps the best comedic film about race relations that American cinema has seen in the last 25 years.
Set at the fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college of Winchester University, the movie recalls the weeks leading up to a “race party” thrown by a white fraternity which encourages attendees to show up in black face. What results is biting, sometimes-nasty satire that can never be accused of playing things safe.
The film is named after a college radio show emceed by black female student Sam White (the mesmerizing Tessa Thompson). White plays music, occasionally speaking over the tunes with stinging observations about black/white student interactions. She’s a media major who, quite convincingly, argues that Gremlins is about suburban white fear of black culture with her professor. Fellow students suggest she might be the pissed-off baby of Spike Lee and Oprah.
Sporting a massive, epic Afro that white people can’t help but run their fingers through, black and gay Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is trying to figure out his place on the campus and in society. Thompson, who has been acting for about a decade, is a true contender for breakout performer of the year.
The movie might not hit the mark with every observation, but it hits a lot more than it misses. Simien throws caustic barbs at Tyler Perry, reality TV, Cosby and Tarantino. He is far more successful with his satire than he is with the film’s romantic relationships, which feel a little false and forced at times. That’s OK; with dialogue this sharp, I can forgive a few boring scenes with people lacking any real chemistry.
Dear White People opens Friday, Nov. 7, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).