‘Dear White People’: Slamming stereotypes without being preachy

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During one of the most intense moments of “Dear White People,” members of a black student group suddenly seem to notice one of their members appears to be Asian and Latino, after she casually mentions student groups representing those minorities are having meetings across the way.

It’s as if they’re suddenly wondering: Hey, what are you doing here?

“You guys have better snacks,” she says with a shrug.

As was the case with early Spike Lee films such as “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing” — and yes, you can expect nearly every review of this film to include a reference to Spike Lee, and why not — Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” addresses core issues of racial stereotypes with equal parts humor and drama. (When the leader of an African-American student movement is outed for having Taylor Swift on a secret playlist, she looks defeated and says, “And I was so careful.”)

Although there are moments when the characters in “Dear White People” sound as if they’re reciting different sections of a thesis, overall Simien’s screenplay is tight, funny, smart and insightful, and his direction has just enough indie feel without becoming too self-conscious or preachy.

“Dear White People” is set on the campus of a fictional, Ivy League-type institution called Winchester University, where the “legacy” Caucasian students co-exist with the small but growing number of black students who are constantly debating among themselves about the best way to change subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle institutionalized racism. (White students can’t seem to keep their hands off one kid’s gigantic Afro, as if they’re playing with a pet. Then again, that same kid is ostracized by many of his fellow African-Americans because he’s gay. Simien constantly calls out all sides for their bull—-.)

It’s difficult to address stereotypes without having archetypes, and “Dear White People” is brimming with characters representing a particular backstory or viewpoint — although not everyone is being true to the role they’ve assigned themselves, or the role their fellow students have ascribed to them.

Teyonah Parris is Colandrea, who calls herself Coco because she thinks her given name is too “ghetto.”

Tyler James Williams (“Everybody Hates Chris”) is terrific as Lionel, an aspiring journalist who feels unwelcome everywhere because the white students treat him like a novelty and the blacks deride his sexuality.

Tessa Thompson gives perhaps the best performance in the film as Sam White —yes, Sam White — who becomes the leader of a student movement but struggles with her identity because her mother is black and her father is white. She’s also secretly dating a white student.

Brandon P. Bell is the son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert), who is the head of the historically black residence hall but is facing a challenge from Sam.

Writer-director Simien keeps things flowing in relatively quiet fashion for the first hour or so — filling the soundtrack with as much Tchaikovsky as hip-hop, moving from residence hall to dorm room to outdoor campus scenes as nearly every conversation, whether it’s about a student revolution or what movie to see, eventually comes back to the issue of race. A black nerd asks a homecoming-king type if the students at his high school “knew you were a Trekker.” In her “Dear White People” podcast and vlog, Sam says whites have to have at least two black friends to avoid the appearance of being a racist, and “no, your weed dealer, Tyrone, does not count.” There’s a lot of talk about hairstyles and clothes, and who gets to use the n-word and when.

Then comes the Halloween party, in which white students put on blackface, hold guns sideways, blast hip-hop music, wear masks with caricatures of Barack and Michelle Obama and otherwise embrace what they perceive to be the African-American culture. It might seem like an over-the-top device, until we’re reminded in the closing credits that many such events have taken place on American campuses within recent years. I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens at the party and what happens when black students hear about the party and crash the party, but even then, “Dear White People” doesn’t take the easiest, most obvious paths.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was of course a seminal moment in American history. It also gave birth to a new level of rage among a small but intensely vocal segment of population, who had a tendency to refer to the president of the United States as “that Obama” when calling in to conservative talk show hosts to question the president’s birth certificate.

“Dear White People” is a reminder that no matter what your race, it’s not just your dad, or your grandpa, still trying to some make some sense of it all. We all still have a long way to go, and that probably will still be the case a hundred years from now as well.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions present a film written and directed by Justin Simien. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexual content and drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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