I loved “Dear White People” so much that I started writing this article on the way home from the screening. Addressing racial conflicts on a fictional Ivy League campus, it’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year: angry, confrontational, and funny. It’s clear and concise, but impossible to reduce to a single idea, and also full of empathy for its characters, which elevates it above a mere polemic – but don’t get me wrong, it’s a hell of a polemic. Even if it’s a long shot, it belongs in the awards conversation. It opens in theaters on October 17.
The film takes its title from an on-campus radio show hosted by Sam White (Tessa Thompson), an anarchist who aggressively and unapologetically discusses the lingering racism of “post-racial” America, which makes university administrators, her white peers, and even some of her black peers deeply uncomfortable. In an important way, she is the voice of the film, but in a more important way, she is just one of its many voices.
It doesn’t flatten the black experience into one point of view, but rather explores many different points of view, some of them in conflict, but all shaped in one way or another by their experience of race. Some characters aim for assimilation, like ambitious student politician Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell); and others for confrontation, like White; while Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) feels alienated from just about everyone because he’s both black and gay. Writer, director, and producer Justin Simien, remarkably making his feature film debut, excels at assembling these diverse and fully realized characters and stories into a unified whole.
The ensemble cast deserves consideration for a SAG Award, and Thompson – previously best known for TV shows like “Veronica Mars” and “Copper” – deserves to be in the awards race for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress; both would be defensible category placements given the film’s lack of a single central character.
Simien deserves consideration for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. The first two seem unlikely, but perhaps there’s hope in the writing category, which is often more hospitable to tough, outside-the-box, idea-driven films like this one. It’s worth noting that Original Screenplay was the one race where the academy nominated Spike Lee for “Do the Right Thing” in 1989.
Can “Dear White People” really gain traction this season? Let’s consider the pros and cons.
The film made a strong impact at the Sundance Film Festival, earning Simien a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent; Sundance is often a launchpad for Oscar contenders, like “Precious” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
The same academy that voted for “Crash” as Best Picture might also be impressed by this film’s take on racial division.
Awarding “12 Years a Slave” Best Picture last year might have been an indication that voters are interested in promoting greater racial diversity.
The film points a finger at Hollywood for its perpetuation of racial stereotypes, which might make members of the academy, which is overwhelmingly white, uncomfortable.
The director and most of the cast lack the name recognition that often draws academy attention to unconventional Oscar candidates.
The film is about a group of college students, and voters don’t take young people seriously. The last time such a group of whippersnappers got into the race, they were in “The Social Network,” which lost the top Oscar to a movie about old British royalty.
Will “Dear White People” appeal to the academy? Use our drag-and-drop menu to predict Best Original Screenplay below.