“Satire is the weapon of reason” is the punch line to writer-director Justin Simien’s flip and hip satire, “Dear White People.” Here’s a race-based/race-baiting comedy that tackles issues of identity and sensitivity head on, a debut film that brashly borrows from a few early Spike Lee movies and updates them in a story of a college campus where somebody figures “Unleash Your Inner Negro” is a good idea for a white frat house Halloween party.
Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts a comically incendiary campus radio show at Ivy League Winchester University. “Dear White People” is a black provacateur’s slap at the culture she sees around her.
“Dear white people,” she begins, “the minimum requirement of black friends you need to not be seen as racist has just been raised to two.” “Dear white people, stop dancing!”
This rattles the thoroughly integrated campus, but not nearly as much as her efforts to do away with “randomizing” housing arrangements. She wants to return Armstrong-Parker Hall to a dorm for African American students only. When she wins the job of hall president, she re-segregates the place, encouraging the black kids to pelt white interlopers with wads of paper.
But Miss Thing, we notice, is fair skinned. She has a white boyfriend she keeps secret from her Black Student Union activist friends.
Then there’s the gay Ukel-in-an-Afro, Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris.” He fits in nowhere.
Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a preening diva who changed her name from the one her parents saddled her with (Colandrea). She does a snarky video blog and only dates white boys.
Simien unleashes racist fraternity members, white trust fund girls who “date black guys” just to irk their parents, academic leaders who say “Racism is over in America,” and a reality TV show producer (Malcolm Barrett) casting for a hyped-up reality series — “Black Face/White Place.”
But that climate, he suggests, is begging for satire, not that a blackface Halloween party is incapable of being that subtle.
The banter is witty and testy, all about who can give or take away your “honorary black card,” a school newspaper staff being “whiter than Michael Jackson’s kids.”
Thompson (“For Colored Girls) gets most of the best lines. Parris makes the strongest impression, suggesting layers of self-loathing hidden behind a confident, striving pose.
That’s what everybody does in college — pose, none more than uptight/upright Troy (Brandon P Bell), son of a college dean (Dennis Haysbert) who changes the channel from “Star Trek” to sports when he thinks others are watching him.
Simien focuses too much on the character played by his star, Williams, which seems a mistake. Scenes are underscored with classical music chestnuts, a trite way of suggesting “academia.” And the ending is an eye-roller.
But Simien is on the mark is the target for his satire, that a generation we see as color blind is probably not. White people, and black people can stay through the credits for proof of that.
MPAA Rating:R for language, sexual content and drug use
Cast:Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Dennis Haysbert, Brandon P Bell
Credits: Written and directed by Justin Simien. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:48