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SIFF ADVANCE: Dear White People - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF ADVANCE: Dear White People
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

"Dear white people on Instagram: you have an iPhone, and you like to go on hikes. We get it."

That bit of minor yet amusing cleverness comes from Samantha White (get it?), the young black woman an an ivy leage college indignant at a pending rule change that will disallow race-based housing, and thus force the disillusion of the black house in which she lives. She runs for Head of House to make a point, and is surprised to become the winner. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a "race riot" when black students crash an "African American" themed party thrown by white people.

This is a case where a film's potential points squarely to heavy-handed moralizing, but that's sort of the point. Dear White People, named after the radio show on which Samantha makes cracks about the majority race, is outright satire -- and uniquely effective at that.

Having a movie begin near the end, only to backtrack to the beginning of the story, is arguably overdone, but here writer-director Justin Simien makes it his own. He intoduces us to each of the major players in this story by moving through well-lit shots of each of them watching news coverage of the so-called "race riot." These include Samantha (Tessa Thompson); her white boyfriend Gabe (Justin Dobies); her YouTube rival Coleandra (Teyonah Parris); Coleandra's white friend Sophie (Brittany Curran); Sophie's stoner black boyfriend Troy (Brandon P Bell); and aspiring writer Lionel (Tyler James Williams), among others.

We then get introduced to the school, and its many houses, complete with graphics that themselves look like a sendup of ivy league letterhead. We move back to the beginning of the story, which begins a chain of events linked together with hyper-articulate discussions that barely fall short of being Diablo Cody-esque. The difference here is that, comparatively speaking, these smart college students actually sound like real people.

The best satire is subtle, and Dear White People delivers on that front, displaying a level of sophistication that belies its clearly low budget. This is what happens when genuine talent makes the best of limited resources. And with a script this smart, it's unsurprising they managed to get Dennis Haysbert to play the Dean of Students -- also, incidentally, Troy's father.

Dear White People has a majority-black cast, and is rightfully proud of being the antidote to Tyler Perry movies. ("Why do you watch Tyler Perry?" one person asks. "We're underfed," is the response. In one particularly delightful moment, a character even calls Perry out on his "Christian dogma.") Studios churn out so-called "black movies" that do nothing but pander; this movie does no such thing. One of the key characters just happens to be gay, and -- gasp! -- he's actually a multi-demensional character.

The most biting satire can leave characters unlikeable across the board; Justin Simien takes the opposite approach. He gives us relatable characters with sincere intentions, many of whom make ridiculous decisions that cut right to the heart of how black and white people relate to each other in America. Granted, here it's confined to the context of privileged kids on all sides, but it still works as a microcosm for society at large.

And Simien doesn't go for easy targets. No direct send-ups of white guilt or black stereotypes here; he goes much deeper, creating a truly satisfying comedy of misplaced intentions. And if an "African American" themed party thrown by white students sounds over the top, you haven't been watching the news: Simien draws from several real-life examples of white students in several states doing exactly that. Any sensible person would agree with Lionel when he walks into the middle of this party, looks around, and says matter-of-factly, "This is kind of fucked up."

Sure, there's the usual stuff with characters learning to embrace who they really are rather than bowing to tribal pressures, but Simien lends it added weight with graceful humor. This is a movie that actually means something, but is also light and fun. How often does that happen? Usually all you have to ask of a comedy is if it's funny -- and this movie most certainly is. But it's also satire, and it hits the bull's eye.

Tessa Thompson (bottom left) leads the satirical charge in DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.

Overall: B+
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