Dear White People (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), the feature debut of director / writer Justin Simien, is a sharp, smart, ambitious satire of race, racism, privilege, prejudice, and power at an Ivy League college that has drawn comparisons to Spike Lee. Which is fitting; Simien uses humor and provocation to explore issues of race and race relationships in the so-called post-racial era, he spreads ideas and perspectives around a large array of characters and creates debate through criss-crossing stories, and uses the crucible of college (as Spike did in School Daze) as both microcosm and as a specific culture where young people develop their identities as adults. Simien is his own filmmaker, however, with his own style and sensibility.
The title comes from the sarcastic punctuations of a radio program from campus activist Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), who punctures the hypocrisies of political correctness with bull’s-eye stingers that are the buzz of the campus. She’s the rabble rouser who finds herself, against her own expectations, elected as head of her house, but she’s just one of a number of characters in the lumpy melting pot of a busy ensemble piece. Tyler James Williams, once the cute kid of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, is Lionel, the subject of savage harassment as a gay black nerd trying to find his voice as a journalist in a fringe paper. He’s promised a feature in the award-winning campus paper if he wades into the controversies getting fanned by Sam. Or at least that’s how the all-white staff of the officially-sanctioned paper sees it, and if this film is about anything it is how the meaning of issues and events shift according to perspective, experience, and expectations. I can only guess that black audiences will nod in agreement at some of these observations. As one of the white people addressed by the film, I appreciate the change in perspective. That’s one of the things movies can (and American movies all too rarely) do with such immediacy and vitality.