*** out of ****
Dear White People is an engaging comedy-drama about race relations on an Ivy League college campus. It is reminiscent of John Singleton's ambitious 1994 drama Higher Learning, except Dear White People has a clearer focus and a pointed sense of humor.
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of TV's Everybody Hates Chris) is a new student at the fictional Winchester University. He's black, he's gay, he's a nerd, and he is having a major problem finding permanent housing on campus.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a young black woman and radical with an often inflammatory radio show that she opens with “Dear white people...” She is also sort of dating a white guy.
Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is a handsome, charismatic young black man with a future in politics. He is also the Dean of Students' son.
And then there is Colandrea “Coco” Connors (Teyonah Parris) who is ashamed of her ghetto roots and wants to be accepted into the white cliques at school. She also has a strong desire to be in a reality TV show. All these characters have different reactions to a white fraternity's Halloween party that has an offensive black stereotype theme.
Dear White People is a provocative movie about a serious subject, but it's often very witty, and there is an honesty running though the humor. And the characters aren't just archetypes but full-blooded characters who are complex and flawed. This film totally evokes early Spike Lee, and that is a good thing.
It's the edgy humor that keeps the film afloat – like hilarious references from Tyler Perry to the classic Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America (1988). If only it sustained that energy throughout. Some of the more dramatic moments tend to lag.
Don't get me wrong – this is a smashing debut by writer/director Justin Simien. He is a filmmaker to watch because he has much on his mind and that is an exciting prospect.