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Review: Dear White People

The film doesn’t aim to condemn the fools who believe racism in America has ended, but rather open a vast discussion of how the subject of race in our country has evolved.

4.0

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Dear White People
Photo: Roadside Attractions

“Racism is over in America,” says Winchester University’s white president (Peter Syvertsen) to its black dean (Dennis Haysbert). “The only people thinking about it are Mexicans, probably.” This might be the only completely untruthful and wholly ignorant statement made in Justin Simien’s debut feature Dear White People, which seems far too true-to-life to be called a satire, even though it’s billed as such. Of course, the movie, which unfolds almost entirely within its fictional campus setting, is contrived in ways to support its microcosmic, pseudo-satirical vibe.

The long-acquainted president and dean, for instance, conveniently reflect racial power struggles that spill over into the lives of their respective sons, rebellious Kurt (Kyle Gallner) and upright Troy (Brandon P. Bell), campus hotshots defined by their aspirations to adopt each other’s racial norms. But even the film’s most extreme line deliveries are electrified with kernels of un-ironic truth. To Sam (Tessa Thompson), the militant black DJ who hosts the hot-button show that gives the film its title, the president scolds, “I think you long for the days when blacks were hanging from trees so you’d have something to complain about,” before dubbing her the school’s most intolerant figure. Sam, meanwhile, in a reactionary radio broadcast, remarks, “People who say ’African-American’ are only too scared to say ’black,’ because they actually want to say ’nigger.’”

Dear White People doesn’t aim to condemn the fools who believe racism in America has ended, but rather open a vast discussion of how the subject of race—and merely identity—in our country has evolved. Bookended by a news-making frat party with a whites-in-blackface theme, and propelled by a narrative concerning Sam’s assault against the school’s “randomization of housing” (the only all-black residence hall, Parker/Armstrong, is on the verge of being diversified), the movie feels monumentally topical. It arrives in the wake of Miley Cyrus coming under attack for appropriating twerking and grills, and Spike Lee netting headlines for a stubborn rant against gentrification, claiming, in so many words, that he’d rather not have his childhood neighborhoods multi-colored. Are the Mileys of the world disrespecting a culture and community by robbing their trends for personal gain, or honoring them by expressing an unyielding desire to emulate those trends? Do people like Lee have a perfectly viable distaste for the “white overhaul” of things like historically black locales, or do they counter-productively stand in the way of intermixed racial progress? These are the sort of double-edged, open-to-interpretation questions Simien seems zealously driven to ask, and best of all, he never presumes to have the answers to any of them.

Like the movie itself, every character is a beautiful swirl of contradictions. When Sam isn’t hosting her show, making shorts like Rebirth of a Nation (a post-Obama repurposing of minstrelsy), or literally writing the book on how to sustain one’s blackness at a white-dominated Ivy League school, she’s bedding Gabe (Justin Dobies), a white TA. When Troy isn’t condoning the multi-racial proposals for Parker/Armstrong, and walking arm-in-arm with his girlfriend, Kurt’s lily-white sister, Sophie (Brittany Curran), he’s hiding out in his bathroom smoking pot, a substance Simien frequently uses as the ultimate signifier of black stereotypes. Colandrea (Teyonah Parris), or Coco for short, rebels against her race, only dating white guys and perpetually straightening her hair, while, at night, dissing white girls on her YouTube channel as part of her goal to achieve celebrity. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an all-seeing misfit who, after constant residence relocation, has become the punching bag of Kurt’s frat house, is so afraid of fellow blacks that he won’t let any of them cut his monstrous fro. Though clearly queer, Lionel responds to the dean’s inquiry about his sexuality with, “I don’t like labels.” To which the dean replies, “You’ve got no categorization—that’s your problem.” Even here, neither man is wrong, and Dear White People revels in the notion that, in our society, labels are as much a necessity as they are a toxin.

Though it feels a bit like an upgrade of John Singleton’s Higher Learning, which, by contrast, seems highly reticent in how it probes sociopolitical questions, the film holds nothing back in presenting Spike Lee as its strongest influence. It opens with a succession of direct-address shots, uses the same approach to incorporate meta indictments of culture (the viewer takes the POV of a box-office attendant when a group of black filmgoers complain that the new Madea is the best they’re offered), and Lee’s name is dropped at least twice. Given the depths he’s willing to plumb, and the boundaries he doesn’t see in regard to social and racial analysis, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Simien might be Lee 2.0—not just the next essential black voice in filmmaking, but a voice curiously, magnanimously attuned to the development of the times. In the Parker/Armstrong dining hall (from which whites are soon expelled when Sam is surprisingly elected head of house), Simien lets Kurt bark his complaints to Sam about affirmative action, and propose the dubiousness of colleges’ diversity-driven enrollment practices, before spinning the tables back in favor of Sam, who claims Kurt’s dad is promoting random housing out of fear that blacks will “congregate and cause trouble on his plantation.” Every character gets a say, and better still, no character is what he or she seems.

There’s a definite sense that Simien, who nurtured this project for years before debuting it at Sundance, is biting off more than he can chew. In introducing a reality-show element, which is partly used to document the eyebrow-raising bash where countless white girls get their Julianne Hough on, the director unleashes a skewering of media and capitalism that feels like its own can of worms. And, without doubt, viewers will feel this film’s big ideas piling on top of each other, in the heavy events that thrust racial quandaries front and center, and in the zippy-academia dialogue that implies Dawson’s Creek was also an inspiration.

But while he’ll need to better editorialize moving forward, this is hair-splitting when compared to the breadth of Simien’s anthropological aptitude. The very fact that he set his film at a university, a place where ideas are meant to flow and bloom, serves as a kind of self-reflexive cushion, letting his own thoughts as an emerging artist disseminate. And through it all, he anchors the ever-sparring emotions of his film to Sam, whom Thompson plays in a star-making performance, displaying in her face the great ache of being the vessel of the tale’s hypocrisies. Turns out Sam has a poignant secret that’s poetically, enigmatically symbolic of the melting pot we live in, and that Dear White People so thrillingly explores. When she finally spills it at film’s end, she seems to feel both exhausted and enlightened. You will too.

Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Brandon P. Bell, Teyonah Parris, Justin Dobies, Kyle Gallner, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Syvertsen, Brittany Curran Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2014 Buy: Video

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Film

Review: Wrestle’s Triumph Is Its Unmistakable Humanity

The documentary shines a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget.

2.5

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Wrestle
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

In the wake of Hoop Dreams, documentaries following the travails of under-privileged teenage athletes have become a genre unto themselves. In these films, institutions are ambiguously critiqued as well as often implicitly endorsed, as we come to share in blossoming adults’ efforts to win by playing by rules that generally don’t serve them. In each such documentary, we hope that we’re watching one of the exceptions to the pattern of casualties beget by the racial, classist strictures of this country—a hope that embodies the insidiously self-negating pull of capitalism. And this form of suspense quietly drives director Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer’s Wrestle.

For Wrestle, Herbert and Belfer filmed hundreds of hours of footage of four teen wrestlers on the J.O. Johnson High School team in Huntsville, Alabama. We learn that Johnson is a failing high school with low test scores and graduation rates, and so the new wrestling team, headed by young social studies teacher Chris Scribner, is an attempt to offer students direction and to allow the school to achieve a measure of self-respect. This information is introduced too casually, as one craves more context as to how Scribner sold his hopeless superiors on this team, particularly in a school that’s in threat of being defunded.

Herbert and Belfer home in on four of Scribner’s athletes: Jailen, Jamario, Teague, and Jaquan. Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are African-American, and wrestle with issues of neglectful parents, teen pregnancy, drug use, and indifference to the rules that various white people insist they follow for their own good. It’s in dramatizing this last point that Wrestle proves to be most evocative, especially in terms of defining the athletes’ relationship with Scribner, who’s Caucasian. Scribner’s aware of his white privilege, though it often gets the better of him anyway, such as when he repeatedly calls Jamario “bro” as if he’s the young man’s peer.

In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Jamario and Scribner almost get into a fight on the school’s grounds. To his credit, Scribner maintains his cool and talks Jamario down, but this encounter illustrates the distinct gulf of experience between coach and pupil. And this gulf is reaffirmed when a cop harasses and threatens to jail Jailen for public urination. Aware of the camera, the cop seems most concerned with Jailen’s “disrespect,” which is admirably contained given the circumstances, because Jailen knows that manners are a matter of life and death between black men and the police. Meanwhile, Jamario and Jaquan’s mothers—heavy, tough, impervious to bullshit—try to help Scribner keep their children on the straight and narrow. This is another thread that Wrestle should’ve elaborated upon: What do black women think of allowing a white man to assume a pseudo-parental role in their sons’ lives?

Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are commanding and photogenic, stealing the filmmakers’ attention away from Teague, a white teenager who reflects the path that Scribner was in danger of treading. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Scribner empathizes all too well with Teague, who’s constantly lectured for getting high before school functions. Teague embodies the recessive-ness of substance abuse, which isn’t acknowledged much by pop culture. Even when on screen, he rarely seems present, as he appears to be lost in his anger and hungers—though these emotions drive him to achieve a few startling victories on the mat.

Wrestle has a lovely, scruffy, wandering quality, and individual anecdotes are vivid, such as when Jamario learns of his daughter being born during his high school graduation, for which he fought hard to achieve. But Wrestle doesn’t have the spellbinding flow of Minding the Gap or especially of Hoop Dreams, and it may make you wish that the strictures and challenges of J.O. Johnson itself had been more specifically established, especially in light of a potent bit of information that’s revealed in the text before the end credits. Herbert and Belfer, though, do shine a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget, justifying indifference with various infrastructural metrics designed to cloud the human cost involved. In Wrestle, that humanity comes roaring to the surface.

Director: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer Screenwriter: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer, Pablo Proenza

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Blog

Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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