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2 July 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:10pm

Dear White People is clever – but too shallow to match the complex reality of race in America

Dear White People never exactly loosens up; the screenplay would make a good PhD thesis.

By Ryan Gilbey

Dear White People (15)
dir: Justin Simien

The trouble with the Rachel Dolezal case, in which a white woman passed herself off as black, is that it risks making any fictional story about racial identity seem tame. Dear White People has its share of provocations about race but complex reality has overtaken its vision at a worrying speed. Were Dolezal a character in the movie, she would be the most intriguing and unclassifiable one by a long, white chalk.

An inflammatory party on campus at a fictitious Ivy League university encourages its guests to embrace their “inner Negro” and offers by way of catering such culturally loaded treats as watermelon and fried chicken. Even the complicity of a few African-American students cannot render the event harmless. Bookended by this predominantly white shindig, the film asks who makes the rules about racial identity, who polices them and what happens when vested interests get in the way.

Across campus, the seductive voice of Sam White (Tessa Thompson) can be heard issuing pithy advice on her daily talk show. Each message begins, “Dear white people . . .” and ranges from the facetious (“Please stop dancing”) to the semantically bewildering: the term “African-American”, she maintains, simply shows that the speaker is too lily-livered to say “black” – and is therefore a closet racist. Early parts of the film present a visual equivalent of Sam’s clipped edicts in the form of immaculate tableaux of static actors staring defiantly at the camera. The effect is half agitprop theatre, half Wes Anderson.

Dear White People never exactly loosens up. Its writer-director, Justin Simien, has a fondness for bumper-sticker slogans, semantic trickery and sociological buzz­words; his screenplay would make a good PhD thesis. Even at their funniest, the characters resemble walking op-ed pieces more than human beings. Satirising this, in a scene that shows Sam and her boyfriend slipping from socio-political intercourse to the sexual variety without missing a beat, isn’t quite enough to neutralise it. Simien seems interested in characters only so long as they can advance his film’s argument.

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Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay undergraduate writing an article about Sam’s controversial handbook for black students, is a warm-blooded exception. Another student, Coco (Teyonah Parris), sees arguments about race as obstacles on her path to reality TV stardom, until she realises that they can also be steps on a ladder. The dean (Dennis Haysbert) tries to calm the storm over the university’s “Randomisation of Housing Act”, which seeks to overturn the exclusivity of black and white houses on campus. Trouble is brewing between Sam, who opposes the act, and her white bête noire Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who holds court on the iniquities of affirmative action.

Racial tensions on campus have already been covered by two major African-American film-makers: Spike Lee, in his jazzy second film, School Daze, and John Singleton in the more ponderous Higher Learning. Dear White People has greater clarity and elegance than either of those and there are stylistic flourishes, such as an interlude concerning the myth that African Americans don’t tip, which suggest Simien knows how to dramatise his arguments.

Plenty of one-liners hit the mark. There’s a stinging Bill Cosby reference and a nice moment in which Sam’s boyfriend finds Taylor Swift in her music collection. “I was so careful,” she hisses, as though confronting a smoking gun. It’s a smart joke characteristic of the picture’s tension between stereotype and reality. This is, after all, a “black” film with classical music rather than hip-hop all over the soundtrack.

Had Simien made a fully fledged movie rather than what resembles a filmed revue, he might have capitalised on the one truly shocking image he has come up with: a hand reaching up to remove an Obama mask from a partygoer, revealing a white face underneath. I’m not convinced that the director intends what that image denotes or is prepared to confront its implications. It simply sits there on screen, as confounding and maddening as one of Rachel Dolezal’s attempted explanations.