‘Dear White People’ is the best college movie of the last 15 years

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It doesn’t try to reinvent the genre — writer-director Justin Simien admits the necessity of understanding “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Higher Learning” in his undertaking. It doesn’t try to speak to the ubiquitous college experience. Instead, it presents a very particular slice of life that only happens at a very exclusive and expensive private school. It zeroes in on the few years in a person’s life when that person must confront who he or she really is and how the world will inevitably judge that.

“Dear White People” follows firebrand Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) in her run for head of the black house on the campus of her fictitious Ivy League-esque college. She is as high profile as reclusive nerd Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is desperate to go unnoticed. Unfortunately, a small-scale housing crisis explodes into full-scale violence when a clueless fraternity throws one of those now-infamous mortifying blackface parties. Satire is served up as clear as a bell, but the morality of this film is anything but black and white.

Thompson is equal parts vulnerable and diamond-hard as Sam, ready with quick rhetoric but barely concealing her own suffering. Her battle is more internal than external, but it doesn’t keep her from lashing out. She is caught between how she thinks she should act and how she really feels — illustrated by her lovers, her hair and her filmmaking. Williams does the same dance in reverse, working out his sexuality and his nerdiness in an environment he doesn’t trust to accept either. These two face a stony dean of students and a harrumphing university president who basically embodies white privilege.

No college movie would be complete without the douchebag frat-bro character, here supplied by Kyle Gallner as Kurt, who effortlessly pulls off the popped-collar assuredness of the untouchable golden boy. Kyle is foiled by Brandon P. Bell as the gorgeous and embattled Troy, who is moved like a chess piece by everyone and never owns himself. The supporting cast is rounded out by Teyonah Parris as Coco Conners, who evidences something between respectability politics and the unyielding hunger for fame. The result is a multidimensional cast; no character is just a nerd or just a jock or just anything. Each is struggling to define a self against a backdrop of inequality, judgment and privilege.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Simien was candid about his desires for “Dear White People.” On the difficulty of producing a painfully funny satire with great moments over stereotypes, shutouts and the unadorned stupidity of bros, Simien posited that “a comedy makes you think, while a drama makes you feel. The place in your brain that responds to humor is different than the place in your brain that responds to raw emotion. With a comedy, you’re able to talk about ideas with just enough distance. Humor was just the way into this topic. It was the only option.”

Humor returned when he was asked about the movie’s attack and defense of filmmaker Tyler Perry.

“I’m glad that we live in a world where a black man can still buy an island,” Simien said. “The frustrating thing about the legacy of Tyler Perry actually has nothing to do with him; it’s the fact that the marketplace made a decision in response to his success that said that his audience was the entire black audience, so that everything served up for that audience had to follow that model. But that wasn’t true.”

It isn’t true for “Dear White People.” The fact that the characters in the film directly address the subject of what is typically referred to as “black people movies” is the most overt symptom of the departure from that model offered by this film. It departs from our expectations of movies about race by distressing the notion of race itself and by allowing characters to be human rather than archetypal. It departs from what is expected of college films by engaging with the exhibitionist nature of modern life for people who don’t yet know what their #brand will represent. “Dear White People” is a deliciously complex satire. Whether or not that title addresses you, you need to see it.

“Dear White People” is playing at the Century Hilltop 16.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].