It’s worth celebrating this film for what it is and what it achieves, rather than cavilling about the things I wish it had done. After all it is rare enough to see a mainstream depiction in a film from the United States of lives other than privileged white kids, especially within a stylistic framework that equally evokes Wes Anderson (the Ivy League-like setting additionally recalls his Rushmore) and Stanley Kubrick (whose Barry Lyndon gets referenced via some of the classical music cues), amongst others. In fact, given the film’s budget, it’s a wonder that it looks as good as it does, shot in crisp bright colours, beautifully lit and with a lot of frontal framing of the film’s black faces. It’s in these boldly direct images that the film scores highest, with challenges to such things as racial power dynamics (the myth of black ‘racism’ for example) and the crassness of media representations of minorities, generally delivered by its forceful leading lady Tessa Thompson (playing a character called Sam White, head of her college house’s student body).
Aside from the titular radio show in which Sam delivers further challenges to her collegiate audience, the film is filled with other references to the co-optation of ‘authentic’ black experiences by privileged white people (all the college’s houses are named after black jazz musicians, there’s a reference to the audience for aggressive rap music largely being non-black, while the denouement involves a staging of a hiphop-themed party at a white fraternity). Meanwhile, its other lead character, the student journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), moves from being stand-offish around his black colleagues as a show of resistance to black stereotypes, to being part of their movement to challenge campus-based racism. His arc seems to reference Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, though his climactic rage at the white fraternity he was a part of has less of the power of Mookie’s trash can moment in that film, possibly because none of the white characters here are in any way sympathetic (or indeed given particularly rounded roles — not that that’s a problem, of course). The narrative also becomes more conventional as the film progresses, dissipating some of the early excellent character work and humorous barbs.
However, much as I wish it had been angrier — its target seems almost quaint within a media landscape currently dominated by stories of murderous police aggression — it never allows the power of its black protagonists to be co-opted or dissipated within the dominant power structures. I look forward to further films from this cast, and from writer/director Justin Simien.
Director/Writer Justin Simien; Cinematographer Topher Osborn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Teyonah Parris; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.