With the blistering, scorched earth, take no prisoners satire of the uncomfortably hilarious Dear White People, Justin Simien has constructed the most confident and assured debut feature of the year, and one of the best of any year. Period. A stylish and thoughtful takedown of political correctness and equal, but opposite reactions of political incorrectness, Simien has created a screeching mic drop of a film that more serious minded filmmakers and sillier stand up comics have been attempting to come up with for over a century. It’s timely and of the moment, with a keen eye towards prejudices of the past and how progressive minded people can shape the future.
At the prestigious Ivy League university of Winchester, a combination of racial and class warfare has been brewing for quite some time. Incendiary campus radio talk show host and budding filmmaker Sam White (Tessa Thompson) finds herself emboldened by the school’s powerful black student union to run to be the current head of the school’s traditionally all black dormitory, usurping control from incumbent head of house Troy (Brandon P. Bell). Sam likens herself as an outspoken self-starter who refuses to take shit from anyone around her, and Sam resents Troy’s status as a white girl dating legacy kid whose father (Dennis Haysbert) is the lame duck dean that helped to implement randomly assigned housing instead of letting students choose where they wanted to live.
When Sam unexpectedly wins the election, a seismic and uneasy shift takes place. Troy spirals into self-doubt, cozying up to the obnoxious, bullheadedly racist head of the campus humour magazine (Kyle Gallner) whose dad happens to be the president of the school (Peter Syvertsen). A bullied, nerdy, gay, black journalist (Tyler James Williams) gets the unenviable task of trying to spin the events into a story for the school paper and to impress the editor (Brandon Alter) he secretly has a crush on. A shallow, but bright potential reality show starlet (Teyonah Parris) decides to backpack on Sam’s strengths by shit talking her way to campus stardom. Even Sam finds herself at odds with the two men that she likes: the militant black student union head (Marque Richardson) who wants to control her (and is yet apparently the only worthy and available black student on campus) and the good natured white guy (Justin Dobies, who’s also the film’s fight coordinator, in a fun fact) that engages with her and seems to give a shit about her opinions that sometimes go against her organization’s party line.
It’s a hell of a lot to take in over a single sitting, but it adds up immediately. It’s like watching a well choreographed fist fight in slow motion. It’s never apparent if every verbal or physical jab Simien’s characters throws will hit the mark, but you know well in advance that the only outcomes are going to damage someone else’s feelings or cause the instigator a great deal of embarrassment if they screw up. It’s car crash filmmaking at its finest, and the ramifications keep piling up. It’s emotionally gory and sometimes purposefully unpleasant, but that’s also what makes it so electrifying to behold.
Simien knows damn well that he has too much going on, but there’s no other way to play this kind of material to do it any justice. No one is right in their point of view, but some are more right than others. Everyone has a convoluted way of justifying their own hypocrisy to help them sleep at night. Simien’s point isn’t only to show how political correctness, equality, and affirmative action have helped to widen racial inequality rather than help it, but to show that we’ve become so irredeemably fucked as a society that there’s almost no saving each other without burning it all down and starting from scratch. And yet, Simien isn’t a complete anarchist or nihilist to suggest that. He’s at heart and by tone a humanist who never looks down upon or condescends towards any of his characters despite their lot in life. It doesn’t matter if the scene is dominated by a privileged white cretin who thinks political correctness is impeding his ability to be funny or someone clearly angling for fame no matter how much they want to sell out their ideals. Simien knows that none of his characters are saints, but he makes painstaking strides to make sure the audience knows which characters are more sympathetic than others. It stops being about the cause relatively quickly and starts becoming a trenchant examination of the people caught up in it. Every storyline is on point, and Simien has such a grasp on the plot mechanics and characterization that he’s not afraid of having his film come across as episodic. If anything, it’s a stronger work for that very reason.
There’s also nothing but great things to be said about the cast across the board, especially Thompson and Williams. Sam might be the most layered and uneasy protagonist in a film this year. She’s privileged, but she refuses to rest on that privilege to get by, sometimes even to her own detriment. It seems like every argument she gets into, she needs to find a handicap to prove she’s truly an underdog, but she’s really in a position of great power. Not only does she slowly begin to realize that her ideas about equality and progression differ from seemingly like minded people, but her journey is also one of love, understanding, and learning how to channel a rightful and simmering rage into something pointed, focused, and productive. It’s a hell of an arc, and a hard one, but Thompson carries it off effortlessly and humanely.
Williams gets a task that seems thankless on paper: the role of the audience surrogate. If everyone else represents what it means to be black or white or whatever, Willams’ Lionel is the only character that can truly say that he’s a minority by proxy. He’s a complex person in a society that has proven to have no room for complex people. He’s black, but he’s a wimpy nerd. He’s gay and shy, so he runs afoul of his fellow, predominantly white alpha male housemates. He wants to be a professional journalist, but Simien heavily insinuates that no one at the school paper will give a damn one way or the other about his contribution to the discourse. He’s the one character who can try as hard as he wants, but he’ll never achieve victory. And yet, Williams still finds ways to make Lionel full blooded. Lionel is shy and sometimes cowardly in the face of opposition or danger, but he’s also proud of who he is and what he’s accomplished. He never feels the need to flaunt it, and when he’s pushed to a breaking point he’s conscious enough to know where to pick his battles.
The film leads to a moment where a character is somewhat forced into the ultimate act of self-destruction for the sake of everyone else around him. It’s a selfless act in a selfish environment. Not only does Siemen’s film refute the egregious right wing claim that “racism is over in America,” but he holds up a mirror to both sides pleading for them to stop being so selfish and self-involved. It’s not going to offer any easy answers, and the often side-splitting humour being employed requires serious thought and analysis, but there hasn’t been any other film on this subject that’s been made before. It’s one of only two films this year worthy of being called a masterpiece.