“Dear White People” promises incisive satire but delivers tepid agitprop of the mildest sort.
Julian Simien’s crowd-funded movie feels regretfully unfinished, one step above a student film. It evokes Spike Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” but could have used some of that 1986 film’s verve.
Instead of Lee’s smack talking Mars Blackmon and Tracy Camilla Johns’ unapologetically sexual Nola Darling, we have sketchy parody about college students with unresolved daddy issues.
The movie throws around terms like anarchy and revolution, but is more concerned about black students coming to terms with their identity than provocation. “Dear White People” raises some interesting issues, but doesn’t really know what to do with them.
The movie takes its name from a popular campus radio program hosted by Sam White (Tessa Thompson, above front left). White, a biracial student with a retro look, has very confident views about white folk dancing (they shouldn’t), among other things. She also has no time for the assimilation dreams of former boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), a son of the dean (Dennis Haysbert) now dating the white daughter of the college president.
Winchester University, an Ivy League-ish institution, is predominantly white, and it’s about to host a racist party encouraging students to let out their inner black self. (Except the invite uses a word beginning with N, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.)
Mild-mannered Lionel Higgins (“Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams), a gay writer with a prodigious ‘fro and fondness for Mumford & Sons, and Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), a girl from the hood taking her cues from Beyonce, are both more interesting than the black campus leaders. Lionel just wants to fit in somewhere; Coco wants to become famous by smoothing her rough edges.
Both get drawn into the fight between Sam and Troy over the future of the historically black house on campus.
There are white students, too, but they are even more broadly drawn than the black students. And in the background, there’s a black reality show producer hoping to sell a network on a show around a controversial black student.
The drama flashes back to events leading up to the party, the likes of which have popped up around the country. The movie bash is powerful, but the repercussions are strangely muted; more attention is paid to Sam’s complicated relations with white people and Troy’s political prospects.
A pummeling late in the movie also begs for further attention than it receives.
Sadly, the entire enterprise feels unfinished. Simien honed “Dear White People” through a Twitter account of the same name, and while Sam’s character has amusing observations early on, they take back seat to other drama as the movie progresses.
“Dear White People” does tackle sensitive subjects – most pointedly, questioning how white students could think it’s okay to host black face parties in this day and age – but clumsy satire undermines the movie. Uneven acting doesn’t help, either.
In the end, “Dear White People” is too recessive for its own good. It doesn’t need to be didactic, but a stronger narrative would make it a far more interesting movie. Simien has shown a willingness to tacky thorny issues in the movie, his first feature, which arrives in theaters the same time as the more assured “Black-ish” tackles racial humor on network TV.
There are some amusing tidbits tucked inside “Dear White People” — like the propensity for white people to touch black people’s hair — but the movie fails to fully live up to the promise of the title. Let’s hope Simien’s storytelling skills catch up to his ambition in subsequent outings.