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Hey Whitey

Justin Simien's 'Dear White People' is perfectly imperfect

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DON'T FEAR THE FRO Tyler James Williams plays a wary underdog.
  • DON'T FEAR THE FRO Tyler James Williams plays a wary underdog.

It's a very good thing Dear White People was made—it gets in there where the dirt is.

At the lily-white Whitman College, Samantha White's show on the college radio station is chafing a lot of nerves. In the proud tradition of fraternity-row movies, the administration is up in arms about her broadcasts. The worried dean of students is played by Dennis Haysbert, who gets to give full weight as an actor when telling off his legacy-student son Troy (Brandon P. Bell.)

The talented cast includes Tyler James Williams as Lionel, a wary underdog with a sky-high afro who's seduced to the Light Side by the college newspaper, seeking an exposé of racism on campus. Samantha's opposite, Coco (Teyonah Parris), is a vlogger (neologism shudder) who seeks popularity at all costs even if it means acting girly, self-deprecating and YouTube-friendly.

You can be in favor of Dear White People and still notice that it's a Harvard movie about Harvard problems. Because of the tight budget, Whitman is shot to look like an Everycollege. The Twitterish notes in Samantha's broadcasts sometimes offer little distinction between serious racism and etiquette breaches. Simien's characters are all flawed, troubled and almost all duplicitous—the Latin motto of Whitman is "Know Thyself," but nobody does here. That's a sign of mature filmmaking. Yet Samantha's pronouncement "Dear white people: don't dance" is, ultimately, supposed to be funny. It exemplifies this film's tendency to double-dip: decrying prejudice while celebrating exceptionalism.

Dear White People wisely ridicules the assertion that America is post-racial after Obama's twin victories. The film's bravery and open ending is credible, despite the dead spots, and that woeful self-seriousness that poxes student wit. You can hit the nail on the head a hundred times and still have a rickety structure.

'Dear White People' is playing at the Century Regency, 280 Smith Road, San Rafael. 415.479.6496.

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