“Hopefully [Simien will] take time to elaborate on his ideas in future films, or possibly keep a steady thematic trend going so that his ideas in his debut will become more extractable, at least for me.”

by Steve Pulaski

Just this past weekend, I had a fairly lengthy discussion with one of my closest friends about watching a film that is filled with ambition, symbolism, and ambiguity in heaping amounts and proceeding to write a coherent, thoughtful review on said film without filling it to the brim with buzzwords and overblown generalities. I mentioned to him how looking back on films like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, two films I heavily praised, left me confused in the sense that I wonder if I really enjoyed what the films brought to the table or was I just reacting in a positive sense because I really didn’t know what to make of the films and felt obligated to give them glowing praise to feel intelligent. I can say that I love parts of the both the aforementioned films – their cinematography, their ambiance, and their attention to smaller aspects of films that truly make them films experiences in the fullest degree – but question if my understanding of what they were trying to say exists at all.

Right now, I will not use any evasive language to state I have no idea what to make of Justin Simien’s debut film Dear White People, which has garnered loads of praise by film critics and from festivals all over the United States. I sat watching the film, laughing periodically at the silliness of it all, but sat with an unshakable blankness to what the film was trying to say about race and how we perceive it and respond to it. The film concerns a gaggle of African-American students at an Ivy League school, one of which, a hardened, incorruptible woman by the name of Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), who runs a radio show named Dear White People, giving the black students across this campus a voice. Another student we follow is the quiet, humble gay kid named Lionel Higgins (Everybody Hates Chris star Tyler James Williams), as he struggles to find his voice at this school, frequenting transitory spaces and never exactly finding his own specific home.

Dear White People
Written & Directed by
Justin Simien
Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner
Release Date
24 October 2014
Steve’s Grade: C

For over one-hundred minutes, we follow these characters and others and navigate the ins-and-outs of racism, judgment, and assumptions, as Simien dares to be funny, providing humor on the simplified stereotypes of race and topical, apparently etching in undertones to what it’s like to be black in present day America.

Even when reading the plot and reading up on the buzz Dear White People generated prior to its theatrical release, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The plot summations, from the shortest to the longest, seemed to dance around the core and only paint the exterior of a project that, if cracked, seemed to possess a thoughtful and contemplative interior. It’s an interior that, even after seeing the film, I’m not sure if I can adequately define, which is a problem when you’re watching almost any film, especially a documentary or a satire.

While Dear White People is not a documentary, it is a billed as racial satire, compared to the works of Spike Lee in terms of occasionally letting an argumentative tone slip through. If Simien’s ultimate goal was to make me view both sides, black and white, as stupid, when they play the race card and bicker back and forth, exchanging their dead-end ethnocentrism, then he has succeeded because that is about all I took away from the film. Dear White People’s prime achievement was making me realize how much I hate talking about race and find race-baiting and bickering over superiority a distraction from things occurring in the world effecting, not one particular race, but the human race.

One thing I did find myself appreciating was Simien’s stylistic attributes, infused in a way that makes him something like Wes Anderson with more of a flair for social commentary. His shots are consistently straight, neat, and meticulous, evidently the end result of hours of setup and stern camera placement to assure for an outcome to appreciate. On top of that, as I stated before, Simien finds ways through screenwriting to make humor out of basic stereotypes, which allows for some whimsy to penetrate occasional directorial coldness when the actions of the characters’ really begins to circle back and catch up with them.

All is well and good, except I cannot extract any particular meaning from a racial satire, which I see as a concerning problem. Simien tags many bases with this project, but this is one of those rare cases where the bases are masked by displaced dirt, and what suffers, in the end, are characters, who are lacking in deep personality, and humor that is far too sporadic for a satire as evidently cheeky as this one. Simien is young and college educated, with a resume sure to grow in the future with films just as ambitious and acclaimed as this one. Hopefully he’ll take time to elaborate on his ideas in future films, or possibly keep a steady thematic trend going so that his ideas in his debut will become more extractable, at least for me.