Dear White People

An exasperated, broken-hearted comedy, which is the best kind, writer-director Justin Simien’s feature debut begs to differ with the status quo of allegedly post-racial American college life. At a fictional campus where race-related power struggles are deeply entrenched, the public conversation escalates from snappy, archly articulate interpersonal debates to appalling frat-party racism and consequent violence — which, as end-credits headline inserts remind us, is depressingly common in real life. “Can there be harmony?” is the sort of headline preferred by aspiring journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), who’s black, gay, moderate, a misfit, and the movie’s soul. Though conscientiously an ensemble piece, Dear White People here and there feels like it lacks enough material for a full feature film. This may sound preposterous because of course, alas, it has centuries’ worth of material, but that’s the difference between topic and story. Also, Key & Peele has covered some of the same ground with greater economy and greater depth of human understanding (and soon may even find a way to do a sketch about critics of Dear White People who cite Key & Peele), but it’s not like there can be only one funny source of commentary in the world at a time; that’s part of the point. Simien explores tensions not just between black and white, but also between past and present, between high culture and low, and between irony and sincerity. At times amateurish and unwieldy, his film doesn’t have these ratios under full control, but that’s why it feels current and true.