Race to the Top

One of the reasons I like Black-ish so much is its ability to have a real conversation about race issues, but never forgetting that it's a comedy first. I'm all for having serious discussions about difficult issues - and race relations are pretty much the textbook definition of "difficult issue" - but it can be far more effective to delve into those discussions through the lens of comedy than via some hectoring lecture.

While I wouldn't call Justin Simien's 2014 movie Dear White People a comedy in the laugh-out-loud sense, it definitely takes a very wry tone, so I was a lot more open to its messages. Dear White People is about a blossoming racial throwdown at a fictional Ivy League school. The administration has implemented a policy of mixing up the student dorms, which the black students (accurately) peg as a veiled effort to break up their house. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the leader of the effort to fight back, since she's already well known for her "Dear White People" campus radio show that takes on the casual racism (or at least racially-tinged) habits of her classmates.

That's not the only problem the black students are enduring, though. There's the boy who wants to build a powerful resume, and will modulate his personality to anything his audience needs him to be. There's the girl who is simultaneously embarrassed by and appreciative of the aping of black culture by white students. There's the boy whose homosexuality forces him into isolation from everyone, regardless of their race. All of these take place against the backdrop of the upcoming Halloween party that the exclusively-white humor magazine students are throwing. Care to guess the theme? Yeah, it's one of those ridiculous "Let Out Your Inner Black" parties where white students put on blackface and carry around fake guns.

This all sounds really dour, but Simien keeps the tone fairly light, even while discussing extremely serious issues. He also makes sure that there are layers to most of the characters, so that they're not just the mouthpiece for a single viewpoint. Those viewpoints certainly leak through, though. We all know the white girl who is overly proud of herself for associating with a black peer, and the black guy who plays the race card in irrelevant situations, but even the antagonists in this movie are given some relatable motivations.

If there's any problem with the movie, it's that it's not quite...a movie. It's more a collection of scenes built to have characters talk about these issues. And yes, it does slip into being too broad and a bit too didactic at times. On the whole, though, it was a really enjoyable movie that managed to address some really awkward themes in an entertaining way, and that is no small feat.

Dear White People: B+


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