Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nice try: Justin Simien's slow-paced look at race and class at college, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE


The characters in DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, every last one of them -- or nearly (a few seem not to have the smarts to consider such things) -- are almost desperate to discover their "place" in the world. While their current world consists of university life, they clearly have their eye set as well on the life to follow. Some of these folk are black, some are white, and some may be mixed race, but all are trying to figure out where they belong in terms of not just race but class. This is a terrific set-up for a modern-day, age-of-Obama movie, and I dearly wish that the writer/director Justin Simien had been able to do more with it.

The filmmaker, shown at left, has certainly provided an interesting array of characters -- mostly students, but a couple of administrators, too -- and given each their character "quest" and/or problem. The trouble comes when he tries mixing it all up. He doesn't seem to understand how to make a movie come to life. Instead he sees to it that all his characters, just about all the time, talk about race and class and what to do with or about them. Yet the dialog does not, shall we say, bubble. Instead it just sits there, sort of like Whit Stillman on a rare bad day. Or Spike Lee in his School Daze days, but without the pizazz. Nor do these characters seem to exist much beyond their "race" and "class" blather. That's what they're here for, and that's what they give us.

The timing and pacing are way off-kilter: slow and tired. After the screening I attended, a young woman who rode down in the elevator with me blamed this on the editing -- by Phillip J. Bartell, of the Eating Out series. Whatever you might think of those films, they certainly had no pacing problems, so perhaps the responsibility remains in Simien's hands. In any case, maybe ten minutes could profitably have been cut from this too-long movie, had someone possessed the balls to just tighten it up.

Among the cast there are a number of first-rate performers -- or at least some actors who look like they could be: Tessa Thompson (above) and Tyler James Williams (below, center) to name but two -- under better circumstances.

We see so few intelligent movies about race and class that I don't want to put this little movie down too harshly. It's worth viewing and arguing over, and I'll be interested to see what Simien does next.

Meanwhile Dear White People -- from Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions and running 100 minutes -- opened yesterday, October 17, in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC. Click here to see theaters and further playdates. 

2 comments:

scudsbrother said...

You're right. The 2nd half of this movie was slow.I was certainly ready for this thing to end. This is not and hour and forty some odd minutes that passes quickly.

Like 14 out of the 15 White characters were racist. In the middle of the film, I figured out that this is what most Blacks enjoy seeing. Their insecurity about their own race makes them yearn to watch, hear, talk about, etc., bad White People.

James van Maanen said...

I think youre selling blacks a little short here, Scudsbro. The white folk in this movie are pretty insecure, too -- though god knows, they've/we've been in the catbird seat for far too long now.

Everybody's racist in this movie, which is also the filmmaker's point, I think. But he just takes too long to make it.

Anyhow, thanks for posting.