Alex Garland, the visionary writer-director behind Ex Machina, obsesses over ideas of what it means to be human. With Ex Machina, he explored the inception of A.I. and how true artificial intelligence blurs the line between human and “other” to dizzying, disorienting and apocalyptic result. In his writing effort Never Let Me Go, Garland posed similar – if less refined – questions, posing an analogous emotional experiment with clones as the test subject, begging his audience to work out what separates “us” from “them”. “If they feel, are they not too human?” was the central thrust and this idea has continue to haunt Garland’s films. Never Let Me Go was a lesser effort but came from a place of ripe ideology and artistic thoughtfulness, traits which Garland has never lacked and has gone on to define to great effect. Read More
Candy-colored Thor: Ragnarok is a retro, dimension-hopping hoot. Rambunctious, joyous and just plain fun to watch, Ragnarok is shellacked with vintage Taika Waititi style, the critical darling director behind such rollicking Rotten Tomatoes-adored comedy-adventures as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows and Boy retaining his idiomatic filmmaking tactics even under the watchful eye of notoriously handsy Marvel producers. The best of the Thor films (and this coming from someone who actually admits to enjoying the previous two), Ragnarok employs Taika’s signature witty, irreverent approach to comedy and his knack for building genuine camaraderie among squirelly outcasts to craft the funniest blockbuster of the year, one that doubles as a hell of an odd-couple intergalactic road trip, even if it still barely breaks the lather-rinse-repeat nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mold. Read More
The Rocky series has a long and storied history that I will cautiously admit that I’m not too familiar with. I know Dolph Lundgren played a Russian adversary at the height of the Gorbachev-era Cold War. Sylvester Stallone’s wolf-like howl for Adrian after his first heavy-weight fight is as burned into my eardrums as Marlon Brando’s wailing “Stella!!!” in the sleepy French Quarter streets. The poster-worthy shot of Rocky’s fists pumped victorious above his head atop the Philadelphia Museum of Arts stairs (today known as the “Rocky Steps”) is as iconic to me as Sgt. Elias’ Hail Mary death throes in Platoon. I know the name Apollo Creed and have a vague recollection of his relative importance within the Rocky franchise but I couldn’t tell you much aside from the fact that he was played by Carl Weathers at the height of his beefiness and that he died in the ring. That is to say, I know the iconography of Rocky, but very little else. Read More
My acting career started in a weird place. I played an aggressive racist in a yet-to-be-released film, Father Africa. It was an uncomfortable experience to say the least: calling an African-American “Mufasa” isn’t the most valiant way to get on-screen attention. But, I was a good racist. Great, even. They kept asking me: “Are you an asshole in real life?” Father Africa will likely be my only IMDb film credit until I start making my own. There’s something about bigoted soliloquies that unsettles. Somehow, I can sympathize with all the poor actors in Dear White People.
Hear Fighting People. Fear White People. Leer At White People. Jeer at White People. Sheer Spite People. Queer White People. Hate White People. All could have served as titles for director/screenwriter Justin Simien’s controversial first IMDb entry. Dear White People is a ‘be-yourself’ film in which no one acts like themselves.
The title is conveniently the first thing said in the film. Tessa Thompson hosts a college radio show at a fictitious Ivy-esque institution, “Winchester University.” She’s Samantha White, a mulatto civil rights activist who’s got a hateful bent against the white folk on campus. Her “Dear White People” segment involves various imperatives: stop doing this, stop saying that, stop being here. They’re not suggestions, they’re threats.
Though the story follows four main characters — two of which are ambiguous and pretty much useless to the plot as a whole — she’s the main figure here. Samantha becomes president of Parker-Armstrong (the all-black residential house at Winchester) after her modern Black Panther-esque stance gains favor among her peers. Racial tensions at Winchester have sparked various fights and vitriol is everywhere. Two sides emerge: black and white. Unfortunately, there’s not much gray area in between.
Simien’s film is a satire that inspires more gasps than laughs. The jokes are there, but the comfort isn’t. No one in this film is quite likable, almost everyone’s a full-blown racist and Dear White People is shameless in its depiction of modern-day bigotry. The film’s premise was inspired by a myriad of sorority and fraternity parties with hatefully offensive themes. So, pressure is constantly escalating until the whole thing explodes: the film’s crucial event is an “African-American” themed party hosted by white people in blackface obviously referencing events like those at the University of Florida in 2012.
Everyone acting in this movie must’ve had a very difficult time reconciling their words and actions. I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my own skin, so out-of-touch with something I’ve seen on-screen. Simien’s objective is good, but his journey isn’t. White people, gay and straight alike, are slimy, petulant and morally disgusting. The African-Americans in the film are victims of constant, blatant prejudice and discrimination. Unfortunately, they too spray racism back at their offenders in retaliation. This is fictional depiction of real-life tragedy, and it’s just hard to bear.
Tyler James Williams is the lone bright spot in this darkness. He’s Lionel, a gay black kid who loves to write and doesn’t fit in anywhere. He’s too kind-hearted, gentle and intermediate among these type-A a-holes. Really, he’s the only character I felt was real, the only one I could relate to, the only one who wasn’t afraid to be himself. He’s berated by everyone for his sexuality and skin-color. At the end he’s struggling to bring everyone together.
Williams is soft-spoken but his performance in this movie is as loud as his massive afro. He’s stuck in the middle of an argument that refuses to include him. His sexuality ostracizes him from the African-American community, and his skin color from the whites. He responds by writing, getting his word out there the only way people might hear it. He grounds the film as it risks ballooning into chaos. As such, he’s a welcome sweet to the surrounding sour. I found myself wishing the film were just about him rather than the loud mouths that drown him out.
Dear White People is an important film. Simien deserves credit for taking this challenge head-on. Maybe his movie wasn’t a good one, but it asked the right questions and called for legitimate answers. Racism is real and it’s still everywhere. Dear White People sprays it like a fire hose. Unfortunately, it’s just as narrow.