BINGE-R #40: Dear White People + Weekend Movies
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
The white people are actually sidelined in Dear White People, a caustic, diligent satire about racial realities in contemporary America. Misinformed but well-meaning or just clueless bros, their privilege keeps them from both worry and the spotlight in Netflix’s new series. Set on a prestigious university campus, the focus is the minority of black students, who struggle in distinct ways with how to respond to everyday inequality and the sudden imposition of threat. Kicking off with the school’s satirical magazine hosting a blackface party – “apparently that is a thing white children are into,” acid drips Giancarlo Esposito’s mocking narrator – the show is smart, self-aware, and eventually soulful.
Episodes swap their focus, moving from campus activist Samantha (Logan Browning), whose college radio show supplies the title and whose white side-piece supplies suspicion, to Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), a budding student politician with an ambitious father and a lack of focus. Flashback, comic inserts, and formal gags dot the half hour episodes, with some hilarious side eye and salacious quips peppering the dialogue. There’s a classic send-up of Scandal in the first episode – titled Defamation – that is one perfect per cent nuttier than the real thing.
In expanding his 2014 independent film, Justin Simien echoes previous African-American depictions of higher education, such as Spike Lee’s School Daze and even The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World. The production design is deliberately spiffy and there’s no sense of economic disparity here – a contrast to the usual inner-city cliches that have dogged too many depictions of black America. These students are smart, divided, and uncertain of what kind of world they’re going to find. They’re also, per their age, fond of rash judgments and keen on pleasure; the sex adds a soapy flush to the narrative.
The transition from the banter to the reckoning can be a little jarring in the first two episodes, but Dear White People starts at good and climbs upwards as it unfolds. It helps that the fifth episode was directed by Barry Jenkins, fresh from shooting Oscar Best Picture winner Moonlight, and there’s a lot of sharp humour and messy wisdom. One character, shy student journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) privately laments that his life is like an endless online comments section, but without the block button. Lionel, and Dear White People, are right on the mark in 2017.
>> Bonus Binge: In the mood for a Spike Lee joint? Netflix has the New Yorker’s assured 2006 thriller Inside Man, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, while on Stan there’s his biting 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It, which remains a landmark American independent feature.
THREE WEEKEND MOVIES
If you want an innovative animated documentary…
Tower (Netflix, 2016, 82 minutes): A riveting, fluid documentary that mixes archival tenseness and tone-shifting animation, Keith Maitland’s Tower recreates the events of Monday 1 August, 1966, when a former U.S. Marine named Charles Whitman murdered his wife and mother and then started systematically shooting people from the observation deck of the tower at the University of Texas in Austin. This was the beginning of America’s history with mass shooting, but Whitman is not the film’s focus. He’s never seen, but his acts create a landscape, described by the intertwined testimony of survivors played by actors and then their contemporary selves, in which uncertainty, bravery, and morality are tested. The rotoscope animation, similar to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, allows for changes of mood and emotional enhancement – a body might change shape, or a memory take powerful hold. The film feels like history being captured in the present, and the changes between formats that reveal the participants are heartrending.
If you’re after an erotic South Korean period thriller…
The Handmaiden (Stan, 2016, 145 minutes): Back on fertile home soil after his lurid English language Hitchcock homage Stoker, the masterful South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) recharges the costume drama with this alternately sensual and scabrous thriller set in Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea, where deception is the only alternative to control. The story is told in turn from the points of view of a thief, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) sent to serve and spy upon a wealthy heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), at the instigation of a criminal imposter planning to steal her fortune through marriage, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and with each transition the implications grow more arresting. Interspersed with nutty heist plot mechanics, the film becomes a battle between the perversely warped male characters and the increasingly unfettered women, who achieve liberation with a thrilling sense of affirmation.
If you prefer a classic British crime flick…
The Hit (SBS on Demand, 1984, 98 minutes): Set in a sun-parched Spain whose glowing warmth mocks the British interlopers, The Hit tracks a London criminal turned informer, Willie (Terence Stamp), who is kidnapped from his hiding place by a pair of hitmen, the menacing Braddock (John Hurt) and his tripwire associate, Myron (Tim Roth), with the intention of delivering him to his aggrieved former employer. Along the way they acquire a second captive, Maggie (Laura Del Sol), but nothing is quite as you expect in Stephen Frears’ gangster flick: Willie’s philosophical about his fate, Myron has second thoughts, and Maggie proves to be a fierce fighter. Elaborate camera moves reveal the characters’ place in the landscape and set up a tension that escalates until it suddenly erupts.
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