Writer-director Justin Simien, making his film debut with “Dear White People,” certainly has a lot on his mind. The script is littered with references to Tyler Perry, Taylor Swift, “Rebirth of a Nation,” YouTube, Oprah, blackface, Robert Altman movies, racism and race wars.
At times this sexy, smart satire seems to be bursting at the seams with ambition, and it can be overwhelming. Especially when 31-year-old Simien is setting up conflicts between various groups at the fictional, self-consciously cool Winchester University — where whites outnumber blacks yet it’s possible to minor in jive.
Once the story is in motion, there’s no stopping the campus rivalries and romantic plot twists that lift the picture and giddily spin it around. Driving much of it is a biracial radio personality (Tessa Thompson) who addresses her audience as “dear white people.”
Also essential is a graceless gay journalist (Tyler James Williams) who gets mixed up with the politics of the college’s dean (Dennis Haysbert) and his manipulative son. Haysbert is the only marquee name; the gifted young actors playing the students carry the picture.
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As a first-time director, Simien sometimes lets his script flirt with talkiness, but with dialogue this sharp and unpredictable, who’s complaining? Has this generation’s Preston Sturges arrived?
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org