Dear White People, the debut feature for writer and director, Justin Simien, is overall a strong one. Simien has created a dramatic social satire on racial issues that combines some of the best aesthetic elements of a Wes Anderson movie while attempting to tackle the issue of race with strong content and dialogue akin to a Spike Lee film.
First, let’s discuss the good. And trust me when I say, the good is pretty great. The high points in this film come from mostly its stylistic qualities. The cinematography was vibrant, clear, and generally fantastic. The bright overlaid text and the bolded chapter titles made the film read like an interesting story.
The writing was smart, relevant, thought provoking and asks all the right questions to open the floor to some very important conversations in an upfront, modern way. There was truly no beating around the bush when it came to Simien’s script. The lead character, Sam (Tessa Thompson), is an outspoken college student who runs a controversial radio show titled “Dear White People” at her Ivy League school, Winchester University. Dear White People centers around Sam’s struggle to come to terms with herself as person and to help shake up the predominantly white world that surrounds her.
One of the problems I had with the film was that it lacked focus in dealing with an ensemble cast. Granted, this is a daunting task for any director to manage and for any actor to work around. Unfortunately, Dear White People didn’t spend enough time on character development for me to really care about any of the characters other than Sam and Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), who plays a black, gay nerd. Their stories are told in a way that highlights the difficulties of trying to fit in while standing out. Nothing but great stuff to report back on both Thompson and Williams.
Most of the cast performed well considering Simien didn't give many of them much to work with. Their stories were brushed upon without giving the necessary depth to make an audience really care about the characters. This mainly happened to two of the other students at Winchester Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), a black woman who tries to disassociate herself from her past as much as possible, and Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the dean’s entitled, insensitive, and socially ignorant son. While there was nothing wrong with their portrayal of the characters, or even the characters themselves, I just didn’t know enough about them to really care. I would have preferred the story focus more on developing Sam and Lionel. As is oftentimes the case with large casts, there were some smaller roles and side stories that I felt could have been cut altogether.
I think that my biggest criticism of Dear White People, a film which considers itself to be along the lines of a comedy, is that it’s just not that funny. While I understand and truly appreciate satire as a genre, somewhere along the line Simien’s work falls flat for me. There are really funny moments, just as there are moments of real truth and clarity. But these intermittent bursts of humor and honesty are not enough alone to carry the film. Since this is Simien’s first feature film I think that he’s well on his way to becoming a great writer and director, but he needs some time to mature and grow in both fields. Luckily, he’s still very young so time is definitely on his side! The direction for [Dear White People](movie:1193413) was there, the ideas were there, the acting was there, but the focus was off.