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"Dear White People" is take-no-prisoners satire, aims to spark discussions about race

The new movie, "Dear White People," aims to make people laugh and squirm - starting with its title. Shot in Minnesota, the satire starts by exploring the thoughts of African-American students at a fictional Ivy League school who are frustrated by...

The new movie, "Dear White People," aims to make people laugh and squirm – starting with its title.

Shot in Minnesota, the satire starts by exploring the thoughts of African-American students at a fictional Ivy League school who are frustrated by the indignities they suffer in an overwhelmingly white community.

Then someone decided to push back. The voice of announcer for "Winchester University's only college radio station" comes humming across a radio in the film.

"Dear White People," begins a silky female voice, "The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone, does not count.

"Dear White People," she continues, "Please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?

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"This just in: dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism."

Samantha White hosts the program while leading a campaign against racial injustice at the school. But like many debates about race in America, it quickly becomes complicated.

Actor Brandon Bell, who plays one of Sam's fellow students, said the film follows the reactions of a group of students, who see themselves as "a black face in a white place."

"It's all about their interactions and the tensions between conflicting identities, of not just being black but just being a student, a young person trying to balance expectations," he said. "All leading up to a race-themed party that is put on by one of the fraternity groups called Pastiche."

Bell is an experienced actor but for him and many other members of the cast the film offers a breakout role. Actor Marque Richardson said the movie aims to fill a cinematic void.

"You know, Hollywood thinks that there's a certain kind of 'black' movie that is the only way that will make money," Richardson said. "Not going to throw out any names but, there is a..."

"What do you mean?" Bell interrupted. "Like Tyler Perry?"

"I didn't say it," Richardson deadpanned.

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"Or Kevin Hart? Who else?" continued Bell.

Richardson claimed he didn't want to name names, then admitted his character does call out Perry in the movie.

"I do say the line," he laughed.

"'Bleep' Tyler Perry in fact," said Bell.

"'Bleep' Tyler Perry," Agreed Richardson.

Richardson said there is a need for smart funny independent films that cater to a black audience, and beyond. That's exactly what writer and director Justin Simien delivers.

"Dear White People" is a take-no-prisoners satire which yanks everyone's chains. While characters in the film are happy to condemn all others attitudes and actions, no one is guiltless. Attitudes about race, gender, and sexuality come under scrutiny as the movie's campus community twists and turns. It's hilarious -- and uncomfortable.

Sam faces scorn from some other students because she is half white, and secretly likes Taylor Swift records. Lionel, an aspiring journalist, is ridiculed for equally for his love of Bergman films and his afro.

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Bell, who grew up in Minneapolis, took part in the initial script readings for the film.

"I remember a lot of laughter which was good, but also weird and awkward because it dealt with race and identity which is often the elephant in the room at times," he said.

The script came to life on social media, when director Justin Simien created a "Dear White People" account on Twitter. He used it to try out one-liners to see what would get a reaction. From that, he developed a film trailer which he used to sell the movie in Hollywood.

If the film looks familiar to Minnesota audiences that's because a lot of it was shot around the U of M campus.

The project took eight years to get into production, but the actual shooting *took* just 20 days. Bell and Richardson say the University of Minnesota was very helpful as they raced to meet their schedule.

"You hit the ground running," he said. "You didn't even have time to pay attention to bystanders. I mean they did a really good job of making sure there weren't too many random students walking around. No distractions. No drunken college kids going 'Waaahhh. You are making a movie.'"

"That was the cast," said Richardson. "The cast was all drunk. That was us."

The film received rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize. Now it's in theaters across the country.

Bell said "Dear White People" aims to spur discussion.

"There is no answer in this film," he said. "This is not the black experience. It is a black experience, or experiences. And hopefully people walk away from this film with a different perspective."

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Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Brainerd at 88.3 FM or at MPRnews.org.

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