”Racism is over in America,” a character — middle-aged, male, and, yes, Caucasian — says with a dismissive shrug midway through the ambitious but uneven satire Dear White People. ”The only people who are thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.”
A quick, depressing look at the comments section of any mainstream news outlet will tell you how untrue that is; race as a national conversation is still a minefield, which may be why current movies that aim to capture or explain some important part of the black experience tend to come in only one flavor: Very Serious. Writer-director Justin Simien tweaks that formula smartly in his feature debut, even if his own perspective leans black-and-white in more ways than one (Mexicans are one of many minorities who actually seem pretty much invisible in People‘s binary world). As archetypes, the students and faculty at the fictional Ivy League Winchester University aren’t that different from the ones we’ve seen in countless other college comedies: the campus firebrand, the entitled rich kid, the awkward outsider, the stentorian dean. Here, though, they all align starkly along color lines. Winchester is a place where race and identity politics are batted back and forth like a Wiffle ball of public discourse; the jokes are light — and often have more than a few holes — but the best ones sting when they land.
Some, including riffs on black hair and interracial dating, just feel clumsy, and too often the characters come off less as people than conduits for Simien’s talking points. It’s also hard not to wish the script had gone for fewer coincidences — the dean and the president were rivals back in their undergrad days, just like their sons! — and clichés (the rich kid is so cartoonishly awful, it’s like he went to the Karate Kid school of ’80s cinematic villains). But the movie finds real power in its climax, a party that turns into a nightmarish orgy of leering white kids in blackface. And the end-credit photos of real parties just like it at schools across the country are a stark reminder of the ugliness that Dear White People, flawed as it is, wants to confront. B