The Mild Controversies of ‘Dear White People’
Richard Brody, The New Yorker, October 21, 2014
Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” set at the fictitious Ivy-like Winchester University, is a movie with something—something important—to say: it’s hard for black students on a predominantly white campus. As a black student, if you’re politically involved, you become a target for racists; if you’re looking to fit in, you invite condescension; if you’re pursuing success, you risk sacrificing your values; if you’re merely searching for your own path, you seem to belong nowhere and are even more vulnerable. If you’re black and gay, it’s all the more difficult. And if you’re white—first of all, try to listen.
Having something important to say isn’t the same thing as making an important movie, or even a good one. “Dear White People” is a skitlike film that conceals its schema under a familiar naturalism. Its ostensibly authentic characters are constructed from the traits that fit the needs of the plot. The film hints at fascinating directions that Simien didn’t pursue and wild energies that he filters out. But opacity, ambiguity, and the risk of slipping off-message are all carefully and blandly avoided by the movie’s lack of aesthetic self-questioning. “Dear White People” isn’t extreme in its artifice, it’s not extreme in its emotional intensity and the complexity of its characters, it’s not extreme in the diagnosis of societal conflicts, and it’s certainly not extreme in its suggestion for their resolution.