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'Dear White People' review: Fresh and funny

Tyler James Williams appears in a scene from

Tyler James Williams appears in a scene from "Dear White People." Credit: AP

Meet Samantha White, the ironically named black radical shaking up an Ivy League university in "Dear White People." The film shares its title with Sam's radio show, a daily missive to the powers that be. "Dear white people," goes one, "the minimum number of black friends required to not seem racist has just been raised. To two."

Written and directed by Justin Simien, "Dear White People" is one of the freshest, funniest, boldest debut films to come along in years. Simien, not too long out of college himself, initially based the movie on his experience as a rare black student at California's Chapman University (the original title was "Two Percent"). What he ended up making, though, is far more interesting, entertaining and valuable. "Dear White People" offers an insider's view of a young, vanguard generation discovering that life in the "post-racial" era has its own problems.

Set in fictional Winchester University (an obvious stand-in for Harvard), "Dear White People" is less about story than ideas, which come mostly in the form of whip-smart dialogue from cheekily drawn characters. Tessa Thompson plays Sam, who fancies herself Angela Davis but wears her hair like Janelle Monáe. She should be dating the militant black student Reggie (Marque Richardson), but her secret side-dish is white (Justin Dobies). Kyle Gallner is memorable as Kurt Fletcher, a cynical humor-magazine editor whose blackface Halloween party -- "Unleash your inner Negro!" -- becomes a powder keg. Dennis Haysbert plays Winchester's career-minded dean.

Simien's obvious touchstone, both thematically and stylistically, is Spike Lee ("Do The Right Thing" as well as "School Daze"). An equally clear influence, though, is Whit Stillman, best known for his charming but lily-white gab-fest "Metropolitan." Where Whitman's characters discussed Jane Austen and Charles Fourier, Simien's tackle Kanye West and hair weaves.

If "Dear White People" has a hero, it's Lionel Higgins, a sensitive misfit played by Tyler James Williams. Sporting an unfashionably large Afro (this was clearly pre-Dante de Blasio), he's the film's voice of reason, the proponent of a better way. Like Simien, he's openly gay, which oddly enough seems to exclude him from everyone's hopped-up, racially charged conversations. Maybe there's a sequel to be made.

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