"Dear White People": Enjoy this movie. Really!
Written and directed by Justin Simien
Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Kyle Gallner, Dennis Haysbert
Faced with a title like “Dear White People,” you—yes, you, dear reader and occasional moviegoer—are wired to react in one of two ways. Either you’re intrigued or you’re turned off, perhaps a little defensive. Piqued or pique: which is it gonna be? Sadly, the people who bristle the most are the ones who most need to see this movie and, by the same token, are least likely to see it.
Because the truth is that “Dear White People” is not a polemical anti-white screed. What it is is a sharp but fairly gentle satire of the state of black-white relations among the educated class, as well as a smart, funny, and provocative conversation-starter for those willing to have an honest, open-minded conversation about race. It’s also a remarkably nuanced and more than a little ironically self-aware portrait of black people’s conflicted attitudes towards the subject, as reflected—and refracted—in the intertwining stories of the four major characters, all black students at the fictional Ivy Leagueish Winchester University.
There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), film major and rebel-rouser who uses her radio show to campaign against the perceived tyranny of the white establishment, but whose own background and internal emotions betray much more complicated feelings about white people. There’s Troy (Brandon Bell), the affable president of the sole black-majority residential college within Winchester—the kind of black guy white people love, whose dad (Dennis Haysbert) also happens to be the dean of students at Winchester and is actively grooming his son to be the next Obama; Troy deals with the pressure by smoking weed and writing jokes in the bathroom. There’s Coco (Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn on “Mad Men”), the outwardly dainty, inwardly hungry girl who’d sooner die than have people think she might be from the ’hood, but whose lust for fame proves stronger than her desire to fit in among her peers. And finally there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the shy misfit with the giant ’fro, the aspiring student journalist who likes boys, sci fi, and white rock music but who can’t seem to find a group, black or white, straight or gay, or a house that will accept him without using or abusing him. All four, in different ways, help set in motion a chain of events that leads to the climax of the movie: an epic fight at a racist-themed campus party (modeled after the real-life “Compton Cookout” party at UCSD in 2010) that’s billed as a race riot in the news.
The four protagonists, all well drawn and engagingly acted, appear to embody varied aspects of writer-director Justin Simien’s own personal experience. What they share in common is a constant tension between who they are to themselves, in private, and who they are—the role they fill—in public. Such tension obviously isn’t restricted to black people or even minorities. But in this context, for these characters, it carries an unavoidable extra charge and burden from being black (and in Lionel’s case, gay as well). That’s not to imply that the movie is heavy in its tone; to the contrary, it maintains a wry, clear-eyed detachment and lightly satirical wit, tempered by genuine compassion for all its characters, that somehow underscores rather than underplays the seriousness of the issues.
“Dear White People” isn’t without flaws. Perhaps deliberately, in a “shoe’s on the other foot” way, it features very few white characters, only one of whom is remotely sympathetic; the others are so thinly drawn that two of them verge on cardboard-cutout villain territory. That one of them is the president of a prestigious university and is simultaneously anxious about diminished funding and unabashedly, openly racist in front of his black dean and black students, stretches plausibility to the breaking point. So, too, does the lack of non-black minority students. As an Asian American, I couldn’t help thinking: come on, Justin Simien, what kind of Ivy League school is this, where the number of Asian faces can be counted on one hand? (Answer: a fictional one; Asians only go to the real thing. Boom!) Joking aside, there’s only one Asian American character with an actual speaking part, and it’s only a couple of lines; as far as I can tell, there are no Hispanic or Native American characters.
To be sure, this can be partly explained by the fact that most of the action takes place within the university’s black community. And it’s arguably not fair to blame Simien for being primarily interested in that community and how it deals with being coopted by white-dominated culture and power structures. He may have decided, understandably, that expanding the movie’s racial landscape would have muddied its focus. But the near-complete absence of other minorities leaves one to wonder what part, if any, they would have played in the lives of his characters. As friends, allies, strangers, competitors, opponents, all or none of the above? There’s a whole trove of potential material there, as rich, complex, and contradictory as that explored by “Dear White People.” Perhaps it just needs another movie to give it shape. Perhaps it’s waiting for the next Justin Simien.
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY
Directed by Hossein Amini
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
If you're in the mood for a good-looking Hitchcockian thriller, look no further. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, "The Two Faces of January" follows the strange and fraught adventures of a young con man (Oscar Isaac) in 1960s Athens who's drawn into the orbit of a seemingly successful vacationing American businessman (Viggo Mortensen) and his much younger wife (Kirsten Dunst)—first as a tour guide, then as an accomplice when the couple gets into a serious jam. The younger man’s motives for helping them remain enigmatic: he’s obviously a hustler, a kind of proto-Ripley, and seems attracted to the wife, but also comments that her husband looks like his father (notwithstanding the lack of physical resemblance between Isaac and Mortensen), with whom he appears to have had major issues. Viggo’s character is less of a riddle than Isaac’s, at least as written, but as played is far the more interesting of the two—turning on a dime from charming to brutish, from hapless to furiously desperate to more subtly menacing, as only Viggo can do. He may not be as crafty as the other guy, but he may be more dangerous.
Perhaps for that reason, the story soon focuses on the dynamic between the two men (somewhat at the expense of Dunst, who’s adequate but not given a lot to work with), each trying to gain the upper hand even as they remain inextricably connected, like the two faces of Janus. There isn’t much in the way their Freudian struggle plays out that’s genuinely surprising, but what it lacks in mystery it makes up for in good old-fashioned suspense and drawn-out tension, with two particularly standout sequences set in the tombs of Knossos and the Athens train station. The film’s also worth watching for its cinematography alone, as it deftly captures not only the surface beauty of the scenery and the exquisitely-attired actors, but also the fundamental duality of the characters and their growing sense of entrapment. Overall “January” is a polished, assured work that hearkens back to a bygone style of filmmaking, which is not at all a bad thing when it’s done this well.