At this point in American history, we'd like to believe we've come a long way, baby, on the subject of race. But as "Dear White People" wades into those very much still roiling waters, viewers will have to confess we've still got a long way to go.
Set in fictional Ivy League college Winchester University, writer-director Justin Simien's debut presents a believable school setting (and American microcosm) peopled with colorful characters. Foremost among them is Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the DJ/blogger flogging the titular gimmick "Dear White People" (as in: "Dear white people: The minimum requirement of black friends required to not seem racist has just been raised to two..."). By doling out wisdom and advice to blinkered whites about their racial and cultural presumptions, Sam becomes a campus hero to some and a pariah to others.
Meanwhile, plans are afoot among some of the school's white students -- represented by Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of the school president -- for a black-themed Halloween party predicated on mocking racial stereotypes. This hotbed of racial tension sets the stage for political, journalistic, romantic and domestic dramas to play out amongst the students and, in some cases, their parents (Kurt's friend Troy Fairbanks, played by Brandon P. Bell, is son of the school's dean, played by Dennis Haysbert).
The power struggles allow Simien plenty of opportunity for satire, but also for sincere attempts at personal understanding between characters, and improved self-knowledge for them as individuals. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of "Everybody Hates Chris") exemplifies this element of the story in shyly exploring his own homosexuality as he attempts to find his place in campus life, perhaps as a reporter for a school newspaper. For her part, Sam is carrying on a romance on the down-low with a white student (Justin Dobies' Gabe), race giving both of them unnecessary pause due to their own hang-ups and the school's charged environment.
Inevitably, this intelligent, funny and hyper-articulate campus comedy-drama conjures Spike Lee, whose sophomore feature "School Daze" explored similar territory. Simien's smart enough to recognize as much, so he has his characters name-check the director and his work more than once. It's a move that typifies Simien's light touch even as he serves up tart satire, and evidence that he's adding a fresh, fearless voice of his own to the cinema scene.
Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use. One hour, 40 minutes.