Among its many attributes, Justin Simien's exuberant debut feature, Dear White People, proves we're not yet living in a "postracial America": Forget for a moment there are so many vexing problems entwining race, class, and economics that we haven't been able to put a Band-Aid on, let alone solve. In our everyday dealings with one another, we're still very much aware of how skin color defines us — or defines how others perceive us — and we're more confused than ever about the words we should use to acknowledge our differences.
For example, is it OK — preferable, even — for white people to say "black" rather than "African-American" in instances where the most useful umbrella term of all, "of color," just won't work? And if so, who sends out the memo so we'll all be on the correct page? No one knows what to do, what to say, or how to be. All of us — black, white, of color — are unified on one thorny question: What do we do now?
Dear White People, one of the sharpest and most audacious comedies of the year, won't make anyone more comfortable. But its refusal to vilify any particular group (save for dumb, racist white guys, who should be vilified) is a reassurance it's OK to be confused, as long as that confusion doesn't come wrapped in cruelty or thoughtlessness. Simien, who also wrote and produced the film, has set the story on an Ivy League campus, where the white kids and the students of color supposedly ebony-and-ivory together in perfect harmony. That's an illusion, of course, and a firebrand campus activist and aspiring filmmaker, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), hosts a regular college-radio show — Dear White People — where she rails against the hypocrisy of it all. She announces, for example, that the quota of black friends a white person must have to avoid seeming racist has been raised to two. "Sorry," she adds, "but your weed-man, Tyrone, does not count." She also pleads with white people to stop touching her hair: "Does this look like a petting zoo to you?"
Samantha runs afoul of the college dean (Dennis Haysbert), who has his own race-related conflicts to deal with, having played second fiddle to the college's white president (Peter Syvertsen) since the two were classmates decades ago. Meanwhile, there are larger issues for him to untangle, involving the university's housing policy and the conflicts between the residence containing the largest number of white assholes (one of whom is the president's bratty son, played by Kyle Gallner) and the house where most of the black students land (and where the dean's upstanding, tweed-and-pocket-square-wearing son, played by Brandon P. Bell, strives to be a leader).
But the chief divisions in Dear White People aren't necessarily between the black students and the white ones: Teyonah Parris' Coco, who has little interest in racial politics (or so she thinks), merely hopes to become a reality TV star; striving for notoriety, she attacks Samantha on YouTube. And the most compelling character of all, a sci-fi nerd named Lionel (wonderfully played by Tyler James Williams), becomes a pawn of three distinct parties: the (white) editor of the student newspaper, the (white) housemates he's been unhappily thrown in with, and the (black) students who don't know what to make of him. What's more, his glorious, wild halo of hair is a flash point both for condescending white folks and for his fellow black students, some of whom ask him outright why he doesn't do something about it. Plus, Lionel is gay — so where, exactly, is he supposed to fit in?
Simien is as fascinated by intra-racial confusion as by the interracial kind. Dear White People moves fast, at the rate of a dozen or more zingers a minute, which makes the experience of watching it exhilarating, if at times a little exhausting. In fact, Dear White People is so pinpoint-focused every minute that it never finds its larger concentration, although that seems to be part of Simien's intent: Lionel doesn't know where, exactly, he's supposed to fit in, because there's no such thing as "exactly." If Dear White People had all the answers, well, we really would be living in a postracial America.
Still, the small miracle of the movie is that Simien finds so many laughs in what are genuinely bewildering issues. He's working in the vein of early Spike Lee, or of Robert Townsend, whose 1987 satire Hollywood Shuffle seemed to herald a new path forward for black filmmakers. For reasons that aren't easy to understand — other than that the economics of making movies are always a hurdle, and even more so for filmmakers of color — that renaissance didn't materialize. Maybe, with Dear White People, Simien will reopen its possibilities. No one knows how to talk about race in America. We need to have a laugh or two as we struggle over what words to use.