A post-racial America?
Not according to “Dear White People,” writer/director Justin Simien’s savage satire in which all the swirling crosscurrents of black/white interaction reach critical mass on a posh Ivy League campus.
The film begins with news reports about the furor created by a party at Winchester University. Revelers were invited to “free your inner Negro” by costuming themselves as black stereotypes and dining on friend chicken.
The story proper begins some months earlier and divides its time among several characters, most (but not all) of them African American.
Sam (Tessa Thompson) has a show called “Dear White People” on the campus radio station where she dishes humorous observations on race relations. One wag describes her as “like Spike Lee and Oprah had a pissed-off baby.”
Though she’s more performance artist than true activist, Sam finds herself running for president of one of Winchester’s “houses,” as the various dormitories are known.
The university has adopted a policy called “randomizing of housing” under which students are randomly assigned living quarters. It sounds fair-minded, but Sam sees it as a plot to undermine and dilute the power of the one on-campus house most frequented by black students.
Her opponent for control of the house is Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the sophisticated son of the school’s dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Troy’s the kind of guy who’ll use his blackness when it’s useful, but otherwise doesn’t pay much attention to race.
He shares that attitude with the flashy CoCo (Teyonah Parris), who craves fame and is angling for a place in an upcoming TV reality show whose producer (Malcom Barrett) is on campus recruiting cast members.
Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a gay nerd with an out-of-control Afro. He’s an outsider no matter what campus group you’re considering.
And the white Kurt (Kyle Gallner) edits the campus satirical magazine. He often takes racist attitudes, but it’s hard to say if he means it or is just being provocative.
“Dear White People” is a virtual laundry list of contemporary racial issues. It’s smart, biting, and well made.
It’s also too arch and smugly self-aware for its own good. These aren’t characters — they’re mouthpieces for various racial outlooks.
But what really hurts is that for all the points it scores, “Dear White People” doesn’t come close to being hilarious. It may deliver the occasional zinger, but the movie’s not much fun — the minimum requirement, I believe, for a successful comedy.