Dear White People Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell. Directed by Justin Simien. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Starting with its provocative title, writer-director Justin Simien’s Dear White People consistently challenges its audience, but it’s not aimed solely at the clueless Caucasians that title implies. What makes Simien’s satire, set on the campus of fictional Ivy League school Winchester University, so effective is that it doesn’t just pick one obvious target and take aim. Every character is some sort of hypocrite, from the militant host of the campus radio show that gives the movie its title to the entitled white bro who uses “irony” as an excuse for constant racist jokes.
Although its story builds to a showdown that’s described in the opening flash-forward as a “race war,” Dear White People is pretty loosely plotted, and sometimes comes off more as a series of sketches than a cohesive narrative. Still, those sketches are incisive and funny, and Simien takes care to build real characters rather than just mouthpieces for various points of view, at least when it comes to the main players. They include outspoken activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), upstanding campus politician Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) and ultimate outcast Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris), a gay black nerd who doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.
The supporting characters are more one-dimensional, and even the main characters end up with slightly truncated arcs so that Simien can fit in all his ideas. But Dear White People’s biggest flaw is its excessive ambition, and that’s a problem more movies could stand to have.