DON’T SLEEP: “Dear White People” [SPOILER FREE FILM REVIEW]
I’m sure if you’re a reader of KillerBoomBox you’ll know we’ve been supporting Justin Simien’s film “Dear White People” from the moment we first heard about it as it hit the Sundance Film Festival back in January. We’ve featured the trailers, announced the release date and have written about it several times. I not only missed the advance screening back in April at the Boston Independent Film Festival but also from when the NABJ (National Association Of Black Journalists) held a screening for it here in Boston this July. Get this, I missed another advance screening for “Dear White People” in Cambridge just this past Friday night! Luckily for me (and my rapidly waning sanity) after a successful opening week in limited release the film was given a wide release in the 75 top markets. I checked the film’s website at 2 AM Saturday morning to discover there was an 11 AM screening happening at the AMC Loews in Boston Common. Needless to say, I was there early….so early I was the only Black person in the theater for a good half hour. To be fair, I had managed to miss this movie in Boston three times already and I was determined to end the streak once and for all.
I’ve essentially been chomping at the bit to see this film for nine months. Babies are born in this same stretch of time! I was glad I no longer had to scan the In Theaters option on my Comcast Xfinity menu at home like I did to see “Time Is Illmatic” because I’d much rather see this film in theaters. It became a sensation at Sundance and based on the teaser and long trailers, the YouTube channel and all of the Q&A’s I saw for it online I was essentially screaming “Take my money!” at the screen. After generating close to 350K on only 11 screens over it’s initial weekend (for an eye opening per theater average of $31,633) a wide release was inevitable. At one point this weekend it had a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes which NEVER happens (it’s currently down to a still incredible 91% at the moment) so curiosity would be piqued even for casual film fans and moviegoers. Fast forward to me sitting in a theater with like 25 White folks before a group of Black people showed up and gave me the What’s Up Dart? headnod…
What should be noted is “Dear White People” attempts to address a wide range of issues that could each have deserved their own individual films in only 100 minutes. It literally touches on a subject then hits on it from every angle but sometimes it never fully follows through on it as if just broaching and addressing the subject alone is enough given the main subject we’re focusing on. Essentially it’s just like being Black in America where there’s so much shit you could be mad about at any given time, you need to just focus on three key things (out of a possible twenty) and keep it moving. The four principle characters that carry the film are Sam White, Troy Fairbanks, Coco Conners and Lionel Higgins. All four are Black students at Winchester University, a prestigious Ivy League university dealing with identity issues both among their own people and from dealing with being Black in an overwhelmingly White environment. It all comes down to survival and what path you either need to or feel you need to take to make it through those four years on campus.
There’s an ongoing interplay between students dealing with the push and pull of their own images versus who they actually are. They have to deal with stereotypes, preconceived notions, other’s expectations and they are all hyper aware of protecting themselves to the point they feel they either need to disappear or be invisible, code switch effectively enough to fit in and save face or even overcompensate to fight against systematic oppression, racism, gender issues, homophobia or whatever else is a hurdle in their own personal lives. The film does a good job of laying down enough foundation and groundwork for you to suspend belief and watch things unfold before you. It also presents multiple layers of nuance and how deep the game is where these students all have to wrestle with their own personal issues in addition to the outside pressures they face daily from all sides. Each of the four protagonists keep your attention throughout the film but by the end you still feel that there were several loose ends. The end may or may not be satisfying to some. I personal feel as though this needs to become an ongoing series because 100 minutes just isn’t enough to do this story in this setting or these characters justice.
Justin Simien wrote and directed an ambitious and impressive first feature nonetheless. I haven’t seen such an impressive film launch, online marketing campaign and rollout for an independent Black film like this since “Black Dynamite” back in October 2009. I’d even argue that this one was more impressive given there were no big name actors involved and no soundtrack to draw in more fans (as in the case of “Black Dynamite”). This film spread strictly through positive reaction to content and word of mouth. It also helped that it came along at a time when people were completely fed up with Tyler Perry, Monica Scott Young produced VH1 coonfests, Steve Harvey, Iyanla Vanzant, BET award shows, police getting away with murdering innocent unarmed Black people scot free and 70+ days of ongoing unrest in Ferguson, MO. Calling this film “topical” is an understatement to say the least.
I’d love to go into full detail about the characters, how they interacted with each other and really deconstruct the film but before I can really do that more people have to see it first. I’d recommend that everyone go see it because it’s the first step to opening up some dialogue not only about the subjects raised in the film but making more films along these lines period. I don’t believe that “Dear White People” was a home run even though it won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Futurewave Youth Jury Award at the Seattle International Film Festival. I feel that it was a solid double sliding into the plate beating a close throw from the outfield, though. There were a lot of things I absolutely loved about “Dear White People”, one of them being the fact that it got me to walk to the theater at 11 AM to go see it on a 70° day in late October. I loved that it addressed many things that I’d never seen discussed so creatively in a film before about a wide variety of subjects. I haven’t attended classes at Harvard since the Fall/Winter semesters of 1997 but I was instantly transported back to those discussions I had with White classmates who scored 1550 on their SATs but were still dumber than a 6 pack of quarter socks when it came to issues of race in America.
“Dear White People” left me sitting in my seat after the final credits thinking there was so much more that could’ve been done with certain character arcs. There were so many possibilities with the wide array of scenarios and storylines that were presented. There were quite a few underutilized characters that could’ve had a bigger role in the film. That being said, I overstood why…this subject matter needs more than 100 minutes to delve into properly. Hopefully, we’ll see a series about these characters or others at Winchester University soon. I was hoping that I’d come away from “Dear White People” screaming from the mountaintops that this is one of the best Black films I’ve seen since 2009’s “Medicine For Melancholy” or 2010’s “I Will Follow” but I’ll instead say that this could end up being one of the most important films of this era that can help kickstart another wave of great independent Black film the same way Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” did back in 1986. Whoever cut the trailers for “Dear White People” deserves a bonus and a promotion and Justin Simien needs to do marketing seminars to independent filmmakers. I recommend that everyone go out and see it so we can all have a serious dialogue about where it fell short and what it did well then all commit ourselves to doing whatever is necessary so we get at least 3 films along these lines to drop every year from 2015 on. Seeing as how it racked up an impressive $1.3 million over this past weekend in only 386 theaters for a an average of $3,403 per screen and a 278% improvement from the previous week, it’ll be interesting to see if the momentum can build even further.
If you’ve seen “Dear White People” and want to chop it up about it in detail you know how to get a hold of me. I really don’t want to drop a gang of spoilers about it because it’s only been in wide release for about a day and a half and I want for people to go out and see it for themselves. After enough people have seen it (hopefully it hits iTunes and VOD via Comcast & Time Warner by the end of the week) I’ll be more than willing to decompose it and really dig into what I felt worked with it and where I felt it left me wanting. Bottom line? It’s not the next great Black film but it might end up being the film that makes it possible for the next great Black film to be greenlit, bought and distributed. I’m all for that…