“Dear White People”: A message that can’t be ignored

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“Dear White People” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:48, three and a half stars out of four.

There’s a scene in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” where a group of African-American students rail against Tyler Perry movies. Staring straight at the camera, they rail magnificently against the mix of cheap comedy and greeting-card sentimentality. Then we get the reverse shot, where we see the one bewildered white movie theater clerk they’re yelling at. Why are they yelling at me, he seems to wonder?

That exchange shows the subtlety and the perceptiveness of Simien’s bold, funny and thoughtful debut feature. As much as the film scores points in satirizing life in the so-called “post-racial” society of the Obama era — as played out in the dorms and quads of a largely white Ivy League college — Simien is just as likely to flip the camera back around on its accusers. The result is a film that’s as honest about the complexities and contradictions of identity as we’re likely to see in a movie theater this year.

We follow several African-American students trying to navigate that minefield. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is a biracial student who mercilessly skewers the ignorance and unconscious racism of her white classmates in her campus radio show that gives the movie its title. (“Dear White People, don’t touch my hair. What is this, a petting zoo?”) At the other end of the perspective is Troy (Brandon Bell), the straight-arrow son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert) who wonders if he feels too comfortable among students. And there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams) a nerdy gay student who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. “What’s harder?” another African-American student asks him caustically. “Being black enough for the black kids, or black enough for the white kids?”

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“Black enough” is a charged phrase that all of the characters have to deal with to some degree or another, especially in an environment where the white kids seem eager to appropriate the parts of black culture they want — music, slang, fashion — and insisting that it’s flattery. While the white kids, including the smirking head of the campus humor magazine (Kyle Gallner), get less screen time, Simien is just as perceptive about their own contradictions about race, how they think if they put quote marks around their racial biases that makes it okay. The film sets several subplots in motion, all building to a horrific Halloween party in which the white kids celebrate every broad black stereotype dating back to minstrel days — ironically, of course. Or “ironically.”

The film runs a little long, lingering too long in one scene or another. But it’s a potent debut; Simien offers no easy answers, and certainly no comforting ones. But the questions “Dear White People” raises — quietly, forcefully, with a biting wit — should start conversations, especially in a Midwestern college town like Madison.

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