College Swap-Out: An Ivy League stand-in plays host to a collision of racial politics.
College Swap-Out: An Ivy League stand-in plays host to a collision of racial politics.

“Can we have a movie with, you know, characters in them instead of stereotypes?”

That’s a clever bit of meta-dialogue early in Dear White People, a provocative but undercooked drama from first-time director Justin Simien. It’s delivered by one of a group of black college students to a white ticket-taker at a movie theater, but it also speaks directly to the film’s purpose: to subvert the Hollywood convention of having black actors relegated to the background of white-dominated movies.

While necessary, this provocation comes at a cost: The film succeeds in displaying a wider array of realistic and complex black characters on screen, but its narrow focus on the issue and lack of attention to the things that make films work—a good, clear story and sympathetic characters—makes it frustratingly hard to embrace.

Part of the problem is its hard-to-define genre. Dear White People is being marketed as a comedy, but that’s an expectation you should scrub from your mind before watching. It’s not exactly funny, except for the few bits you might have seen in the trailers (the biggest laugh goes to a throwaway line about how Gremlins is a metaphor for suburban fear of black culture). A better reference point would be the films of ’70s director Robert Altman, who is name-checked in the film by no fewer than two characters. Like Altman, Simien employs a mosaic approach to narrative, telling the story of what he sees as a pivotal place and time in American history through several lead characters.

The place is the prestigious Winchester University, a clear stand-in for an Ivy League institution, and the people, mercifully, represent not just viewpoints within the black community, but actual, complex individuals. There’s Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the radical new president of the all-black dorm; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the more conservative outgoing president and Sam’s former flame; Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of TV’s Everybody Hates Chris), a gay introvert writing a story on racial politics at Winchester; and Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), a scholarship student from South Chicago who seems devoted to stirring up trouble.

As a setting for a frank discussion of race in America, college is an ideal setting because of how little awareness of their ethical blind-spots people of that age often have. The characters in Dear White People who are struggling against racism are not saints. Some of them are sexist, homophobic, and just plain mean, and the film succeeds the most when it explores the complexities and even the hypocrisies of its characters.

But far too often, Simien sees his cast only as a mouthpiece for the effects of systemic privilege and oppression. The script contains pages of dialogue of characters arguing, philosophizing, and pontificating about race issues. The dialogue is sharp and insightful, and it adds up to a nice snapshot of the way progressive people talk about race in the Obama era. But the story never coheres into something dramatic or compelling, and viewers will spend more time waiting for the next witty retort than feeling moved or challenged. Dear White People is not sure whether it’s an essay or a film, which means it’s not quite either.

Dear White People opens Oct. 17 in wide release.